No zoo is perfect, which is why the terrifying incident involving a 3-year-old boy and a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo has prompted other zoos to double check security around animal exhibits.
Fortunately for the people and the 1,800 animals, the Kansas City Zoo in Swope Park is no exception. It was encouraging to hear Kansas City Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff say this week, “Our absolute primary concern is for the safety of the human visitors and staff.”
The feeling follows the 3-year-old boy at the Cincinnati Zoo getting away from his mother Saturday afternoon. He climbed over a 3-foot-tall railing at the Gorilla World exhibit and walked through an area of bushes about 4 feet deep.
The boy then fell 15 feet into a moat. A 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe pulled the boy out of the moat and dragged him to another spot inside the exhibit. Fearing for the boy’s life, the zoo’s dangerous animal response team shot and killed the 420-pound, male, western, low-land gorilla.
The child was taken to a hospital and later released with minor injuries. Several investigations are underway involving the Cincinnati Zoo and the family. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums is working with the Cincinnati Zoo to investigate the tragedy, said Rob Vernon, senior vice president, external affairs with the association.
Cincinnati Zoo officials have been heavily criticized for killing Harambe and not tranquilizing him. But the tranquilizer wouldn’t have knocked out the animal immediately and might have put the boy in greater danger.
The risk to the child and the killing of the gorilla, an endangered species, has set off a firestorm of criticism. A Facebook page called “Justice for Harambe” was created with another calling for a Sunday protest at the Cincinnati Zoo.
It’s a situation that no zoo ever wants and one that the Kansas City Zoo constantly trains for to ensure that safety is maintained for its more than 900,000 visitors a year, staff and the animals — from the elephants on down to the hissing coach roaches. In addition to being responsible for visitors’ and staff safety, the 2,800 U.S. Department of Agriculture permit holders to exhibit animals in the United States must ensure the safety of the animals.
“We feel we have the animals contained and the people contained where they both should be,” Wisthoff said. “People do some really weird things sometimes.”
Keeping people and animals separate includes the use of fences, moats, steep terrain and even electrified fences like those used to keep cattle corralled. Many safety drills also occur as well as long, deep conversations on just about any situation that might arise, including tornadoes in the Kansas City area. Like the situation in Cincinnati, the Kansas City Zoo is prepared to kill any animal that might threaten humans.
It has that responsibility as one of 217 aquariums and zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. “Our accreditation standards require our members to have an emergency response plan in place for dangerous animals, which would include gorillas,” Vernon said. The killing of Harambe, a Swahili word meaning pulling or working together, could result in new or strengthened safety standards. Such incidents are rare, but they affect the whole zoological community.
“After something like this, we have to double down and go look at things again,” Wisthoff said. “You can’t check too many times.”
That’s admirable. The fencing and distances to the animal enclosures has to be questioned and evaluated followed by training.
The Kansas City Zoo is open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The zoo has a full-time staff of 185 people, and about half work directly with the animals. It’s essential that visitors know that no safety concerns are being overlooked.
“Anything and everything is possible,” Wisthoff said. “We have to make sure we take the responsibility for the animals here. We hope and pray we never have to use the force that we have but are responsible to have force and train for anything. We have to be prepared.”
That is reassuring. It is particularly difficult with modern zoos like Kansas City’s. The natural habitat design enables people to view the animals in a more realistic setting. “People don’t want to feel sorry for the animals,” Wisthoff said.
But that more natural setting often heightens the need to build the environment so that it is more secure. For example, to prepare for the opening of the Orangutan Canopy, the Kansas City Zoo had experienced human climbers test the rock walls to determine whether the animals could possibly escape. None of the rock climbers made it to the top.
The same care goes into other animal habitats at the Kansas City Zoo. Other popular ones include the penguin exhibit and the polar bear exhibit.
It has taken the Kansas City Zoo decades to build up its reputation as a great destination for people and families to go to enjoy seeing the animals. It has gained the trust of voters who have invested millions of dollars into making it a wonderful zoo that area residents can boast about.
The extra precautions to ensure animal and human safety help the zoo maintain this community’s trust and a shared sense of ownership.