A Look Into Zoo Security Following Cincinnati Zoo Incident

By Briana Vannozzi

“You feel bad for the parents because no one is perfect, but at the same point you have to be vigilant with your kids,” said Verona resident JT Sowers.

In the court of public opinion it seems there was no good outcome to this scenario. This is the now infamous video taken over the weekend just before the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed Harambe. A toddler fell into the 17 year-old, 400-pound gorilla’s exhibit after slipping away from his mother.

“Safety is critical, yes everything we do has to involve safety,” said Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer.

At Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo, Spencer takes us through a few exhibits to explain all the safety measures that go into designing the animal enclosures. Public outrage has erupted over the incident, with questions ranging from whether the child was properly supervised to whether the exhibit was properly barricaded.

“When you design an exhibit you have three separate audiences. You have to design the build for the animals going in there, you designing and build for the staff who will take care of them and for the visitor. Each of those has a different set of needs and the best exhibit is one that hits on all three,” Spencer said.

An example here is the new giraffe exhibit. With several walls, electric fences and layers between the public and the animals.

“Fortunately within the AZA community there’s a lot of cooperation, so as we design we can talk to other exhibits that have those animals and design and talk to management groups look at what we’re considering so we’ll have our plans looked at by other people,” Spencer said.

On this holiday weekend, Turtle Back Zoo will see upwards of 6,000 visitors a day making it all the more challenging to keep eyes and ears on every patron.

“Any accredited zoo has an emergency team. They go through drills so we go through drills for people in animal exhibits, animals outside of exhibits fires, weather things like that. So our staff practices that we work with the county sheriff because we are owned by Essex County and their presence is here and cooperation,” he said.

Cincinnati’s emergency response team was critical in making the decision to kill Harambe. It decided the child was in a life-threatening situation. Some have questioned why tranquilizers weren’t used as an alternative.

“The drugs are not instantaneous. When you immobilize an animal it depends on where the dart hits, it depends on the volume of the drug that goes in there, it depends on the excitement of the animal. It’s probably the easiest analogy is a bee sting — some people are sensitive to it some people are not.”

In the case of the Cincinnati the young toddler he actually slipped under a guardrail — through several layers of brush and a protective wiring meant to keep people out.

“I would think that if your child wanders off to where the animals are I think you’re partially at fault, but for the most part I feel very secure and safe with her at the zoo. I don’t think that anything is going to happen,” said Lyndhurst resident Stephanie Papa.

Even with every precaution taken, most recognize there is always a margin for error.