17-year-old Harambe appears to be protecting the toddler after he fell into his enclosure YouTube

Animal rights campaigners have claimed that footage capturing the terrifying moment a child fell into the enclosure housing Harambe, the silverback gorilla, also showed the animal 'protecting' the four-year-old boy from harm. The incident, which was caught on camera by shocked bystanders, occurred at Cincinnati Zoo on Sunday (May 29) after the child breached the security barriers and fell 12 feet into the enclosure.

In the startling footage, the silverback gorilla appears to be gently holding the child's hand, who in turn was sat in front of him, apparently unperturbed and looking back into his face.

The 17-year-old gorilla, dubbed by his former zoo handler as "a gentle giant", even appears at one point to place his arms around the toddler. It was reported that the screams of bystanders caused Harambe to panic, prompting him to run across the water, dragging the child along for ten minutes. It was then that keepers intervened, shooting the endangered animal dead.

The incident has sparked public outrage, with animal lovers decrying the decision to kill the gorilla. The video has further appeared to confirm eyewitness reports that the there was no sign of any aggression from the animal and on the contrary, Harambie appeared to be protecting the boy, dragging him to shallower water in the moat.

Eyewitness Brittany Nicely of Dayton was visiting Gorilla World when the incident happened. Describing how the incident unfolded she said: "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little boy in the bushes past the little fence area. I tried to grab for him. I started yelling at him to come back," Nicely told Cincinnatti.com. "Everybody started screaming and going crazy," she said. "It happened so fast."

"About four or five minutes later we heard the gunshot," she said. "We were pretty distraught. All the kids were crying." "What the first responders saw, I'm just not sure... They said he was violently throwing the child around, which seems crazy to me. They have a picture of the boy sitting in front of the gorilla moments before they shot him."

Animal rights campaigners have argued that the 400-pound-plus male gorilla could have been tranquilised, while others have levelled blame on the child's parents for not watching him and preventing him from climbing the barriers. More than 70,000 petitioners are to sign a campaign on Change.org calling for the parents to be investigated, the Mirror reports.

The petition reads: "This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child. We the undersigned believe that the child would not have been able to enter the enclosure under proper parental supervision.

"Witnesses claim that they heard the child state that he wished to go into the enclosure and was actively trying to breach the barriers. This should have prompted the parents to immediately remove the child from the vicinity.

"It is believed that the situation was caused by parental negligence and the zoo is not responsible for the child's injuries and possible trauma. We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life."

We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child's life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made ... This is a very big loss to the zoo- not just an emotional loss, but a loss to a key conservation and breeding program.
- Thane Maynard, Zoo director

The boy's mother Michelle Gregg responded to the criticism on Facebook, claiming that it was an accident. "I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers today. What started off as a wonderful day turned into a scary one.

"For those of you that have seen the news or been on social media that was my son that fell in the gorilla exhibit at the zoo. God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him. My son is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes... no broken bones or internal injuries.

"As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today."

Replying to the public outcry, zoo director Thane Maynard said that authorities had no other choice but to put the animal down, as it had posed a 'life threatening situation' and the alternative possible outcome was 'unthinkable', Mail Online reports. "They made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy's life. It could have been very bad."

Responding to the criticism, Maynard insisted that the action taken by the animal response team was the right one. "Looking back we would make the same decision," he said. "You're talking about an animal that's over 400 pounds and extremely strong. So no, the child wasn't under attack but all sorts of things could happen in a situation like that. He certainly was at risk," Maynard told WLWT.

He explained that tranquilising the gorilla, which could have taken several attempts, would have left the boy in danger, since the effect would not have been immediate and the animal may have become more agitated.

A gorilla was shot dead after a boy fell into its enclosure
Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla was shot dead after a boy fell into its enclosure Cincinatti zoo

Maynard added that the zoo has been deeply affected by the loss of the majestic animal. "We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child's life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made. We're the ones who took the loss on this- you can trust me, a lot of people expressed concerns, but it doesn't affect anyone as much as the people at the zoo. This is a very big loss to the zoo- not just an emotional loss, but a loss to a key conservation and breeding program."

Meanwhile, Harambe's handler Jerry Stones, 74, from Texas - who regarded himself as the adoptive father of the gorilla - said he was heartbroken by the killing of the "gentle giant." "An old man can cry, too," he told NY Daily News. "He was a special guy in my life. Harambe was my heart. It's like losing a member of the family. I raised him from a baby, he was a sweet cute little guy. He grew up to be a pretty, beautiful male. He was very intelligent. Very, very intelligent. His mind was going constantly. He was just such a sharp character."

Members of the public have taken to Twitter to express their outrage at the killing of the innocent animal.