The chances of security breaches with dangerous animals at the Buffalo Zoo are far less possible than in years past, said Donna Fernandes, president of the zoo.
Her comments Tuesday came three days after a rare gorilla was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo to protect a 3-year-old who entered its enclosure.
Window viewing at the zoo has increasingly replaced open-air exhibit spaces in which moats are used as barriers, Fernandes said.
“We train for dangerous animal escapes, as well as a breach of a barrier,” Fernandes said. “Fortunately, the new polar bear exhibit doesn’t have moats. When I first got here, a lot of exhibits had moats because that was a common technique for animal containment, but we have moved away from that over time.
“Now, glass is much more affordable than in the 1930s, so you can still get an unobstructed view while providing a solid barrier,” Fernandes said.
Exceptions are the lion and tiger exhibits, which have two sets of 36-inch fences and thorny plants before the moat that is the main barrier between people and the wild cats.
Fernandes called the situation at the Cincinnati Zoo a tragedy.
“It’s very sad. I can understand their decision because an adult male gorilla can be dangerous, and society is very litigious,” Fernandes said. “So should the child be harmed, they would have been facing a major lawsuit, sadly.”
Fernandes said she would have tried to clear the area of onlookers.
“Having the male screamed at so much might have elevated the situation for all we know,” she said. “If it was me, I would have tried to clear the area of onlookers. But it’s hard to know what to do with so many people right there.”
Fernandes pointed to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, where a female gorilla in 1996 protected a child after a parent hoisted the boy on a ledge and he fell in.
“The female dragged the boy to the door of the keeper, and the keepers grabbed the child,” Fernandes said.
Another zoo tragedy occurred the same day as the Cincinnati shooting. Santiago Metropolitan Zoo staff in Chile shot two lions to death to save a man who was mauled after climbing over a fence to go into the lions’ enclosure, and then removing his clothes. The man was apparently attempting suicide, according to Chilean media.
Fernandes said the problem of children getting away from adults – which happened at the Cincinnati Zoo – is a frequent occurrence at the Buffalo Zoo.
“Parents lose their children all the time,” she said. “We have four or five lost children a weekend. Then, every keeper is looking for a kid crying or matching a description, and usually within 10 minutes they’re located. On busy days, there can be thousands of people.”
She said it’s important for parents, older children or chaperones to pay close attention to their children.
Fernandes, who began at the zoo in 2000, pointed to an incident before her time in which a person entered the polar bear exhibit.
“A developmentally disabled adult jumped into the moat at the former polar bear exhibit,” Fernandes said. “We train for that kind of thing, and the keeper distracted the bear and the emergency response team threw a ladder down and got the guy out.”
Fernandes said that while she was working at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, a man tried to jump in the gorilla exhibit. That triggered a recording saying somebody had broken a barrier, and the keepers arrived and talked him into leaving.
“The guy said he had a special bond with animals, and we had to talk the guy down and say stop it,” Fernandes said. “Sometimes there are adults who think nothing is going to happen to them.
“It’s hard to design for every scenario,” she said. “You try to design for keeping animals in. It’s hard to also design for keeping people out.”
Fernandes said she hopes the tragedy in Cincinnati won’t lead to more restrictive changes in zoo design.
“A big part of the zoo experience is that sense of being close to animals,” she said.