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CNN NEWSROOM

Zoo Defends Gorilla Killing; Trump Slams Judge; Texas Floods Claim Six Lives; VA Declares Living Vets Dead. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 30, 2016 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:30:00] JEFF CORWIN, HOST, ABC'S "OCEAN MYSTERIES": And watch your kids. I have seen so many crazy things happen at zoos. I've seen people put their children up on railings knowing that there's a predatory animal beneath just to get that photo. I've seen people stick their hands into cages. I've seen people actually pick up animals. Common sense is a powerful tool when you're working with wildlife.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And there is growing anger all about this, but there's also sadness and there's frustration. Inside the zoo, the exhibit itself is closed, but there's a growing memorial with flower just near a gorilla statue. And the family has issued a statement saying that their four-year-old son is home. He was treated at the hospital and released. They also thanked the Cincinnati Zoo staffers out here. But a lot of frustration out here, a lot of anger to those parents. In fact, there would be a vigil right outside the zoo today. That happens around noon.

Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: So, Jessica, do we know how the little guy got into the cage in the first place?

SCHNEIDER: Well, at this point the parents aren't talking, but what the zoo director has said is that that little four-year-old boy slipped underneath the railing and then got through a pretty heavy set of protective wires and then climbed into the moat -- or onto the moat wall and dropped 15 feet into the moat water, shallow water down below. And that's when some of the visitors heard the splash. So indicating that it was quite a bit of a trek for that boy to get through all that wiring and all the bushes into that moat below.

Carol.

COSTELLO: Unbelievable. Jessica Schneider reporting live from Cincinnati, thank you.

Ashley Byrne of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is on the phone right now.

Good morning, Ashley.

ASHLEY BYRNE, PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

COSTELLO: Thanks for being on.

Some people in Cincinnati say there should be criminal charges filed against the parents. Do you agree with that?

BYRNE: Um, well, their child certainly should have been more closely watched. But, you know, everyone involved in this situation really failed this gorilla so much. I mean the gorilla enclosure should have been surrounded by a secondary barrier between the humans and animals to prevent exactly this type of incident. Obviously there was not enough of a barrier. The zookeeper should have had a better plan for what they would do if something like this happened. And gorillas have shown that they can be protective of smaller living beings and they react the same way often that a human would to a child in danger. So, you know, the knee-jerk reaction of killing this gorilla, it shouldn't have gotten to this point.

COSTELLO: But you agree that zoo officials had to kill the gorilla because they couldn't -- they say they could not take a chance that the gorilla would react badly if they shot him with a tranquilizer gun?

BYRNE: Well, you know, again, in many circumstances gorillas have shown that they can be protective of children or small beings. For instance, the case of (INAUDIBLE), the gorilla who carried a child to his zookeeper's gate to protect them. But, frankly, the fact that this gorilla was in the Cincinnati Zoo in the first place, that's the first place that this situation went wrong, because even under the best circumstances, captivity is never adequate for gorillas and other primates. And in cases like this, you see that it's even deadly. And this tragedy is exactly why PETA urges families to stay away from any facility, zoos, circuses or otherwise, that displays animals as a sideshow for humans to gawk at.

COSTELLO: Well, this -- this gorilla is endangered. So I would suppose zoo officials would say they're protecting the entire species.

BYRNE: Well, as we see in this case, at the end of the day, you know, zoos really are not about conservation or species protection. It's because what is prioritized is putting these animals on display so that, you know, people can come look at them. And at the end of the day, of course, this can be deadly for the animals. If this was being done to protect the animals, their lives would be prioritized, giving them, you know, some semblance of a -- of a natural life where, you know, they're not in an enclosure where they can be gawk at and then shot and killed if someone gets too close, you know, through no fault of their own. So we see from this, you know, this tragic incident that the -- you know, the number one priority of zoos is not protecting these animals, it's putting them on display and using them for entertainment.

COSTELLO: Well, I think the zoo officials would vehemently disagree with you, that this -- this gorilla was 17 years old. They had this gorilla for quite a long time. I -- BYRNE: Well, right, he was 17 years old and he -- and reports say that he had a young baby of his own, who, of course, is now without his father. So, you know, again, I think this shows us the tragic side of keeping animals, you know, and other -- keeping animals in zoos or our entertainment. But it can go horribly wrong and that the zoo failed Harambe by taking the risk that something like this could happen. And, you know, once again, captivity has killed and we hope that families with think twice after this before taking their children to the zoo, both because, you know, it's not a good situation for the animals and because it cannot be a safe (ph) -- be quite dangerous for children.

[09:35:35] COSTELLO: All right, Ashley Byrne from PETA, thanks for joining me.

BYRNE: Thank you.

COSTELLO: We just got a statement from the family of the little boy who fell into that gorilla enclosure and I'm going to read it to you. I was a little distracted. I was trying to read it. But let me read it to you. "The child is safe." OK. Quote, "we are so thankful to the Lord that our child is safe. He is home and doing just fine. We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff. We know that this was a very difficult decision for them and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla. We hope that you will respect our privacy at this time. The family is granting no interviews at this time," and according to a spokesperson for the family, this is the only statement that will be issued."

In the next hour, I'm going to talk to one of America's foremost zoo experts, Jack Hannah, about the tragedy and see if he agrees with PETA. I'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:40:26] COSTELLO: Hillary Clinton faces a fork in the road -- stick to policy or get down and dirty in a fight with Donald Trump. She's got plenty of ammo. Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel ordered internal documents related to Trump University be released. Trump University, as you know, is the subject of a fraud investigation and Mr. Trump is not happy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump. A hater. He's a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel. The judge who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that's fine. You know what, I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump when I give all these jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: Now, it is unprecedented for a president candidate to call into questions a judge's integrity by insinuating he's Mexican. For the record, Judge Curiel was born in Indiana and he attended Indiana University. We'll talk more about Trump's charges against Judge Curiel with a Trump supporter in the next hour. But this morning, Clinton supporters are wondering why Secretary Clinton isn't on the attack over this. With me now is Miami Beach mayor and Hillary Clinton backer, Philip Levine.

Hi, Philip.

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE (D), MIAMI BEACH: Hey, good morning.

COSTELLO: Good morning. Welcome back.

LEVINE: Thank you.

COSTELLO: Mrs. Clinton did send out a tweet calling Trump's comments about Judge Curiel "disgusting." Is that enough?

LEVINE: Well, I've got to tell you, took the words out of my mouth. It is disgusting. But you know what, Donald Trump is a guy -- he's a double flusher, Carol. Everything he says we know he comes out he attacks people, Hispanics, African-American, women. You know, the question is, he's beginning to implode. We know in south Florida the feeling here, and of course there's no way he can win this state with his attitude and his rhetoric, but attacking a federal judge is incredible. Anyone who's against him, he just attacks and he goes personal. That's what he's about. He's a --

COSTELLO: Well, polls -- polls do show that Mr. Trump is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. So what Donald Trump is doing seems to be working and what Hillary Clinton is doing to fight him off seems not to be working.

LEVINE: Yes, but let's look at this, what's going on right now. Secretary Clinton is finishing up a primary battle with Senator Sanders. As soon as she receives the nomination, and we believe she'll cross that threshold next week, she'll be the first female nominee from a major political party in the United States for president, and then we believe that Senator Sanders', of course his supporters are eventually going to get behind Secretary Clinton. And when you look at the numbers of a percentage of his supporters that will support her, those numbers will flip. She'll be way ahead of Donald Trump. And, of course, you have to look at those -- those -- those swing states, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan.

COSTELLO: But that's a traditional way of thinking that may or may not, you know, come true during this election season, which is anything but traditional. Let's talk about Hillary Clinton's e-mail controversy because Bernie Sanders brought it up and, of course, Donald Trump is bringing -- has brought it up. It's a very serious issue. Trump is reinforcing that in voter's minds. He's calling Hillary Clinton crooked Hillary, and that seems to have staying power, doesn't it?

LEVINE: Well, I don't know. You know, you've got Donald, who's a double flusher. He's a liar. He's a fraud. He's under federal IRS investigation. He won't release his tax returns. Well, you know, you listen to what Mark Cuban says. The guy's not a billionaire. Every company he started has gone bankrupt. We know that. He started on third (ph). He thinks he hit a triple. So the fact of the matter is, Donald Trump will take care of Donald Trump after this convention and there's plenty of time to go after Donald Trump and his history, his graveyard. You don't see anybody stepping up for him --

COSTELLO: So is that -- is that the strategy, you're just going to wait until after the convention?

LEVINE: I think the fact of the matter is, the more Donald Trump talks, the more Donald Trump will go down. But as far as the e-mails, I mean this is ridiculous already. We saw the report. She used the wrong server. Plenty of secretaries of state have done that. Those e- mails, whatever, they weren't confidential. Everybody knows that. And we can keep playing with the --

COSTELLO: But even -- but even she says it was unwise and if she could go back and do it over, she would. So it is serious.

LEVINE: Good for her (ph). I'm -- well, we've all made mistakes in our life. Look at Donald Trump's background. Look at all the mistakes he's made. Look at all the fraudulent business practices he's had. Look at the federal IRS investigation. We know -- this is a gentleman that is a flimflam man (ph). It's incurable. When you heard Mark Cuban talk about him as a failing billionaire, you know, we know what he's about. It's a shame that the American public, even a percentage of them, are buying in to what this man is, because he is not what he appears to be.

COSTELLO: OK, so you've just called Donald Trump a slew of things, right?

LEVINE: Oh, no question about it.

COSTELLO: So would you suggest -- would you suggest that Mrs. Clinton use those terms when she fights back against Donald Trump?

LEVINE: I think -- you know I think there's going to be plenty of surrogates out there that are going to call him out, will go through his fake financial statement which shows he's worth 10 billion, when we know he's worst well under a billion. We know what he inherited from his daddy to get to where he is. We understand he doesn't want to release his tax returns because it will show that he doesn't pay many federal IRS tax, and he's not paying taxes. He clearly doesn't want to show that. There's going to be plenty of time for a lot of surrogates to come out and do it.

[09:45:18] But Secretary Clinton's going to focus on the issues, minimum wage, raising the middle class, LGBT rights, making sure that immigration is under control, bringing up the middle class. Secretary Clinton doesn't need to personally attack Donald Trump. The rest of the country's out there, including the Republicans, who are doing it. So there's a -- there's a large bandwagon of people out there that are going after Donald Trump.

COSTELLO: All right, I have to leave it there. Philip Levine, thanks so much for being with me this morning.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, searches continue in Texas as floodwaters continue to rise. A live report for you, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:50:15] COSTELLO: Severe weather across the country on this Memorial Day. Floods in Texas claiming at least six lives as the search for victims continues. In one Houston suburb, it rained 19 inches in 48 hours. That rain system has passed, but threatening conditions have not. And along the East Coast, Tropical Storm Bonnie bringing rain from the Carolinas all the way up to New York City. CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray has more for you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST (voice-over): This morning, rescue crews in parts of the south continuing to search for those swept away by the deadly flash floods over the weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just hope it doesn't rise anymore.

GRAY: The rushing water enveloping cars and homes in Texas after severe thunderstorms dropped record-setting rain, rapidly generating dangerous floodwaters. The city of Brenham, where at least two people were killed by the flood, inundated with more than 19 inches of record-shattering rainfall in 48 hours.

PHILLIP KRAUSE, FIREFIGHTER EMT: When you see flooded waterways, it doesn't take much water to cause injury.

GRAY: The floods in southeast Texas killing at least six people. One of the victims, 21-year-old Darren Mitchell (ph), posting this haunting picture of water halfway up his truck window. According to CNN affiliate KPRC, the caption, "all I wanted to do was go home." The National Guardsman swept away not long after. A few hours northwest of Houston, the search is still ongoing for a 10-year-old boy who slipped and fell into this swollen river.

In the east, Tropical Depression Bonnie dampening holiday plans for millions in the Carolinas. This system stalling near Charleston with 30-mile-per-hour winds and up to four inches of rainfall. Along South Carolina's beaches, the storm creating surf and rip current conditions that could be life threatening. Lifeguards already rescuing at least a dozen over the weekend.

JEFF OWENS, NORTH CAROLINA PARK RANGER: It's got a lot of rip currents. The undertow is pretty strong. So we're just keeping people at knee deep. There's no swimming allowed right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRAY: Now, even though it looks gorgeous out, rip currents will continue to be an issue as we go through the next day or so. Skies have cleared for South Carolina, but much of the moisture is headed towards the northeast.

Carol.

COSTELLO: All right, Jennifer Gray reporting live for us. Thanks so much.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, the VA makes a grave mistake and reportedly cuts off benefits for thousands of living veterans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:56:57] COSTELLO: The Department of Veterans Affairs got it dead wrong and cancels benefits for more than 4,000 living veterans. According to a letter from the VA sent to Congress, the department reportedly failed to verify information from the Social Security Administration. Information that turned out to be inaccurate. Benefits were restored once the error was realized. The VA says it's now working to implement new policies that will prevent similar mistakes from happening again. But it's the latest in a string of problems for that troubled agency. With me now on the phone is Air Force Veteran Joseph Kane. He's one of those vets who was mistakenly declared dead.

Welcome, sir.

JOSEPH KANE, VETERAN MISTAKENLY DECLARED DEAD BY VETERAN'S ADMINISTRATION: Hi, Carol. I --

COSTELLO: I'm glad that you're with me and talking.

KANE: I -- ready for my story?

COSTELLO: I'm ready for your story.

KANE: I just -- OK. Well, I retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant after 21 years and a couple other retirees convinced me to take my discharge papers to the VA administration building in Bay Pines, Florida, so my wife wouldn't have any problem when I died so I could be buried in a military cemetery without a problem. So a little about -- a little over a month later, my wife got a letter saying, sorry, I died.

COSTELLO: Oh my --

KANE: And we went to the Congressman Jolly's (ph) office with a letter and then to the VA administration.

COSTELLO: Now, now, wait a second. Wait, wait, wait a second, Joseph.

KANE: OK.

COSTELLO: Joseph, so your wife gets this letter that says you died. Were you sitting there when she opened the letter?

KANE: Actually, I wasn't right next to her, but I was in the house. I was in the other room. And she thought it was a hoax when she read it because she knew I was right there in the house. So she was, you know --

COSTELLO: So when you -- when you read the letter, what went through your mind? KANE: Well, when I read the letter I thought, oh, is this what it

feels like to be dead, you know? It just -- if they say I'm dead, I must be dead, you know? And, you know, I knew it was a mistake, but my concern was how it was going to affect me, you know, and how was I going to get it corrected. So I wanted -- when I did go to the VA, I wanted to know two things.

COSTELLO: So you -- so you brought it to your congressman, right?

KANE: When I died and who said I died. And they said I died on April the 16th. And I see you were in here on the 17th of April and -- with all my paperwork. They didn't know who said I died and the VA did not stop disability pay, but the Air Force took back two months of my retired pay, over $3,000, and the VA give me a form saying I was alive signed only by me. I sent it to the Air Force to get my money back, and they said, not good enough. And when I got to Congressman Jolly, he wrote the Air Force for my -- to get my money returned and in 12 days he got my money back.

COSTELLO: Well, that's -- that's --

KANE: And then I felt resurrected.

COSTELLO: I bet you did. I'm so glad it -- that at least turned out well in the end.

KANE: Yes.

COSTELLO: But, you know, when you step back and look at what happened and, you know, it also happened to thousands of other --

[10:00:09] KANE: Yes. Well, it's scary because you could also lost Social Security benefits.