A trained team of employees at the Kansas City Zoo has the firepower and the instruction to use it if a situation ever arose like the one in Cincinnati, when zookeepers shot and killed a gorilla after a small boy fell into its enclosure.
“We have the appropriate tools at numerous locations that are strategically placed,” said Kansas City Zoo director Randy Wisthoff. “We could handle anything on very short order.
“We’re here to take care of endangered species, but human life comes first,” Wisthoff continued. “And I think you’ll find that at any of the accredited zoos in the country.”
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The Kansas City Zoo logged about 2,100 visitors by early afternoon Tuesday, and many of them made the trek to see the five gorillas, including a 1-year-old, in their woodsy enclosure. Common sentiments were that the Cincinnati incident was sad and that the child’s parent should have been more watchful.
Kimberley Ralls of Cameron, Mo., kept her eyes on granddaughters Nadalie Rhodes-Hiley, 5, and Kenzye Rhodes-Hiley, 3. She blamed the boy’s mom.
“I’ve been coming out here since I was their age,” Ralls said. “My mom never let me get into things at the zoo.”
The setup at the Kansas City gorilla enclosure is similar to the one at the Cincinnati Zoo. A railing about 3 1/2 feet tall follows the visitor path, and on the other side is a deep moat. The outer edge of the Kansas City moat is about 3 feet high. Near the glass viewing shed, the space between the railing and the moat is about 3 feet.
The railing is easily climbable and anyone, even a child, could accomplish an infiltration. Wisthoff said no fence could be high enough to keep out someone who was determined.
“They could go over the fence and get into the enclosure if they wanted to,” agreed visitor Armone Sanderson of Overland Park. “But it’s common sense not to.”
The Kansas City Zoo’s gorilla exhibit was inspected in October by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture and found to be in compliance with all regulations.
Karli Enderle of Harrisonville, visiting with her children, Emmitt, 9, Ella, 6, and Abby, 2, said she was satisfied with the Kansas City Zoo’s enclosures and safety precautions. Her family has a Friends of the Zoo membership and they come to the zoo often. Her kids know the baby gorilla by name: Masika.
“The loss of the (Cincinnati) silverback was tragic,” Enderle said, but “I don’t think there is anything else they could have done in that situation. I think they made the right choice.”
Sometimes people penetrate zoo enclosures with mischievous intent.
In 2007, two boys climbed into the hippopotamus enclosure at the Kansas City Zoo and threw stones at the dangerous and powerful animals, which became angry and began to charge. The boys escaped.
In 2010, someone jumped into the Kansas City meerkat exhibit and stole one of the small but ferocious animals that have sharp teeth and non-retractable claws. The meerkat bit at least one person. Eight days later, someone abandoned it outside an Overland Park pet shop.
In Cincinnati on Saturday, the 3-year-old reportedly told his mother he wanted to get into the water with the gorillas. (Initial reports had given the boy’s age as 4.) His mother said no, but the boy managed to climb over the railing and fell into the moat. The male gorilla, a mature silverback weighing more than 400 pounds, picked the boy up before the gorilla was shot to death.
Many people on social media demanded to know why the gorilla wasn’t shot with a tranquilizer gun instead.
“I’m a veterinarian, and from a medical standpoint, tranquilizers don’t work immediately, and it’s unpredictable how they work in animals,” said Sue Neira of Clay County, who was taking video of Kansas City’s gorillas Tuesday with her daughters, Allie, 6, and Elena, 7. “That’s not an option.”
Shawna Kloeppel of Kansas City brought her grandson, Jeremiah Fowler, and great-nephew, William Lucas, to see the gorillas Tuesday. She, too, was sympathetic toward the Cincinnati Zoo staff.
“If they had shot it with a (tranquilizer), it could have affected the gorilla enough that one little flinch would have killed that baby,” Kloeppel said. “I would have preferred the parents were watching their kid. It’s no good either way. It breaks my heart.”
Police in Cincinnati said Tuesday they are investigating the parents of the 3-year-old, looking into the parents’ actions leading up to the incident. Police said they are not looking into the operation or safety of the zoo.
The 3-year-old was alert and talking when rescued and had only minor scrapes on his head and knee. The boy’s parents have said he’s doing fine.
The incident has triggered a furor online, with some saying the boy’s mother should be charged with child endangerment, while others want the zoo held responsible for the animal’s death.
Separately, the Department of Agriculture said it will investigate Saturday’s incident for any violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Worldwide, every couple of years or so, an adult, often with a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, will deliberately enter a dangerous animal exhibit. Recently a reportedly troubled man climbed into the lion exhibit at the zoo in Santiago, Chile, and disrobed. Zookeepers shot and killed two lions.
Twice in 1994, zoo visitors in Australia were injured when they scaled fences at a polar bear exhibit. On three separate occasions in the 2000s, visitors’ legs were mauled by a giant panda when they entered his exhibit at the Beijing Zoo. In New Zealand in 2012, a visitor was crushed by an African elephant with her trunk. A young man was killed by a tiger after he fell into the animal’s exhibit at a zoo in India in 2014.
The Cincinnati incident could easily have turned out like a 2012 case in which a 2-year-old was killed by African wild dogs when he fell into their exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo.
“The whole thing is absolutely tragic,” Wisthoff said of the most recent incident. “Your heart goes out to everybody. If there is any good news at all, it’s that we’re not talking about a 4-year-old boy who lost his life on a zoo trip.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.