Following the killing of the gorilla Harambe, globally-renowned British primatologist, Jane Goodall, said it looked like the animal was not trying to attack the boy, but protect him. She mentioned that it looked like the gorilla was actually trying to put his arm around the child.

In an email to the director of the Cincinnati Zoo, the leading primate researcher offered her sympathies over the death of Harambe and also the backlash the zoo is receiving from animal rights groups.

"I tried to see exactly what was happening – it looked as though the gorilla was putting an arm round the child – like the female who rescued and returned the child from the Chicago exhibit," Goodall wrote in her correspondence with zoo director Thane Maynard. She referenced an incident at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, where in 1996 a boy fell into the enclosure but was returned to safety by the female gorilla.

"Anyway, whatever, it is a devastating loss to the zoo, and to the gorillas," she added.

On 28 May, 17-year-old western lowland gorilla Harambe was shot dead after a four-year-old boy fell into his enclosure. The animal grabbed hold of the child and carried him around the exhibit space as the boy's mother and other onlookers watched in horror.

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall sympathised with the Cincinnati Zoo Jane Goodall/Facebook

The zoo was forced to fire a lethal shot at the animal instead of a tranquiliser, explaining that it would have taken much longer for the sedative to work and could have angered the gorilla.

"That would have definitely created alarm in the male gorilla. When you dart an animal, anaesthetic doesn't work in one second, it works over a period of a few minutes to 10 minutes. The risk was due to the power of that animal," Maynard defended the response to the incident.

While most animal rights groups have criticised the killing, Goodall herself was more sympathetic. "I feel sorry for you having to try to defend something which you may well disprove of," she said in the email, which was made public through the Jane Goodall Institute.

She went on the express concern for the remaining two female gorillas at the zoo. "Are they allowed to see, and express grief, which seems to be so important?"

The Director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Living Links Center at Emory University, Frans de Waal, also felt that Harambe may have not intended to harm the boy. "Harambe was mostly protective. He showed a combination of protection and confusion. He stood over the child, held him up, moved/dragged him through the water (at least once very roughly), stood over him again. Much of his reaction may have been triggered by public noise and yelling," he mentioned in a lengthy Facebook statement on the incident.

In defence of the shooting, he said alternative action may not have had an immediate and expected result. "The zoo director did not have the benefit of the video by now seen by everyone on the internet. A decision like this needs to be taken in a matter of minutes: there is no time to hear different opinions or look at video evidence," he wrote.