Where The Wild Things Are

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, BY STEPHANIE SILK

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Talks were sparked about security at zoos last December when a tiger attacked three visitors at the San Francisco Zoo, killing a 17-year-old and mauling two others. Following the deadly incident, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) President and CEO Jim Maddy issued a statement, stating that AZA-accredited zoos - zoos that adhere to mandatory standards regarding safety and emergency protocols that go beyond federal, state or local requirements - remain safe. Although the San Francisco Zoo is accredited, the AZA estimates that out of the 2,400 animal exhibits operating under a U.S. Department of Agriculture license, fewer than 10 percent meet accreditation standards.

John Groves, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, says that zoo-goers should feel safe in zoos even though animal residents may be dangerous. Until the December incident, there had not been a visitor fatality resulting from an animal escape at an AZA-accredited zoo. “That tells you a lot about how safe zoos are,” Groves says. “Even though these animals are not your pets, people should feel safe with security measures in place.”

The N.C. Zoo is home to approximately 1,500 animals, boasts a 280-person staff and logs more than 750,000 visitors a year. Three park rangers patrol the zoo round-the-clock, and EMTs are on hand to take care of any medical emergencies.

Groves says that although it would be extremely hard for an animal to escape its compound, the park is still prepared for the scenario. “[In case of a breach] the whole zoo is notified by radio, and those involved in recapture go to the area in question. Visitors are notified by rangers and staff and instructed to get into a safe area,” he says. “We have zoo evacuation plans that involve getting people out in an orderly fashion by using trams or directing people to nearby gates. The zoo has never had to enact them.”

The N.C. Zoo has not installed any new security since the attacks in San Francisco, but zoo officials are talking about it. Groves says the N.C. Zoo is a little different than the facility in San Francisco. “Every species has its own norms that we have to consider. San Francisco's tiger exhibit walls were 12-14 ft. high - our lion exhibit walls are 16-20 ft. high. We look at the security needs of the species when planning an exhibit,” he says.

According to the AZA's 2008 “Guide to Accreditation of Zoological Parks and Aquariums,” when inspecting a zoo for safety and security, an AZA inspection team and its Accreditation Commission will evaluate the following.

  • How often animal escape drills are conducted, and when the most recent drill took place.

  • The location of escape procedures throughout the institution.

  • File archives of safety incidents over the past five years (i.e., escapes, accidents, injuries, attacks or public problems).

  • Whether staff members know the process of treating a visitor injury, and where the nearest first-aid station is located.

  • Whether exhibits are safe for the animals, the staff and the public.

  • Whether walkways, steps and other public areas are free of debris and in good repair.

  • Whether work areas are free of clutter and are safe working environments for employees.

  • How flammables and other hazardous solutions are stored.

  • Whether adequate safety procedures are in place for potentially dangerous animals.

  • Alarm systems and emergency procedures.

  • Whether minimum operational safety standards for diving are met (for institutions using underwater diving with compressed air).

  • Whether adequate security is provided for the animals both day and night.

  • Whether incidents of vandalism have occurred, how prevalent the problem is and how it is being addressed.

  • Security personnel routines for nightly rounds, emergencies, etc.

  • Firearm storage.

  • Whether the perimeter fence is of sufficient height and construction and is separate from all other exhibit fencing.

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