The head of the Cincinnati, Ohio, zoo where a lowland gorilla was shot to protect a boy who fell into the animal's enclosure defended the decision Monday, after a social media frenzy since the incident.

Harambe, a 17-year-old male, was killed Saturday with one shot, about 10 minutes after a 4-year-old boy fell into a shallow moat around the enclosure.

"Everybody at the zoo feels the loss - there's no doubt about it," said Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

"That said, we are very glad that the little boy is OK. ... We did not take the shooting of Harambe lightly, but that boy was in danger."

The gorilla grabbed and held the boy, not letting him walk away and repeatedly dragging the child through the moat.

"He was being dragged around. His head was banging on concrete," Maynard said. "This was not a gentle thing."

In a press conference, Maynard reiterated that tranquilizers would have taken several minutes to subdue the 180-kilogram gorilla, and the act of darting the animal could have set off a violent reaction against the child.

"Politicians and pundits point fingers. We live in the real world and make real decisions," he said.

"We stand by our decision, and we'd make the same call today."

The child was treated at a hospital for minor injuries.

Harambe had been in Cincinnati for three years as part of the zoo's programme to preserve the species and "was headed toward breeding in a few years," Maynard said.

"He certainly is missed, especially by those keepers that cared for him."

Gorillas are "one of the most endangered animals in the world," and the Cincinnati zoo has had about 50 babies born in its gorilla programme in the last 46 years, Maynard said.

Staff were able to collect sperm from Harambe after his death, maintaining an opportunity to continue his genetic line, and other tissues were stored for future research, Maynard said.

Zoo executives hope to reopen the gorilla exhibit by the weekend.

"This is a town that loves its zoo and loves its gorillas," Maynard said, "so I think people will be here to see them."

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