Northwest Wildlife Online
ZOO ANIMAL ATACKS ON KEEPERS
John M. Regan
The death of the Head Keeper at the Canby Refuge in Oregon is the second such incident in a wildlife refuge in less than a year. I feel terrible for the keepers who lost their lives and I feel the same for the families who lost loved ones in what is An unexpected and tragic way to die. There will be an investigation of the most recent incident, just as there are for all of these accidents. Unfortunately, in all but the rarest cases the cause is always the same – human carelessness.
In the short time I worked with exotic animals I was attacked or bitten by hippos, elephants, big cats, primates, raccoons, otters, and several other species I can’t recall. Certainly there were contributing factors: lack of proper safety protocols, lack of supervisor oversight, and zoo design among other things. But the final responsibility rested with me. I underestimated my ignorance and the ability of the animal. There are situations when locks or barriers fail but normally the fault is that of the animal caretaker or co-workers.
I do not mean to cast blame on the people in Oregon; the keepers in this instance could very well be blameless. They loved and cared for their animals to a degree hard to understand for most people. Of that I am certain. I was no different. Sometimes, however, this devotion blinds us to the idea that these beautiful animals would deliberately attack and attempt to harm or kill.
In 1975 I was working at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford, Florida. It was a very old facility at that time. Many years before, a circus went bust and the animals became wards of the city. Eventually the good people of Sanford decided to upgrade the zoo, but the location of it in the middle of this small town (at least it was in 1975) made expansion impractical. Money was raised to build a new zoo on the outskirts of Sanford where it now stands. But before the move was made we had to make do with what we had. Meanwhile the very able fund raising abilities of Jack Hanna kept money coming in and we added to our animal collection.
As I said we had to make do. Lacking holding pens for the cats we often worked around them, cleaning with a hose from the outside. Our two cougars, however, were treated differently. Cleo, an older female, had been declawed before arriving at the zoo so the danger from her was minimal. Fletcher, a younger male, had been hand raised by the curator of cats. We knew Fletcher well and often played with him in a small field behind the park. Inevitably, of course, the day came when the cat got too big for his keeper’s house. He came to the zoo and was installed in the enclosure with Cleo.
Although nearly full grown Fletcher remained a playful feline. In fact, cleaning time was play time. Normally the gentlemen who raised him did the cleaning, but we filled in for each other from time to time. We had a standard routine. A quick squirt from the water hose sent Cleo bounding up into a makeshift den on the far side of the cage where she’d keep a wary eye on us but stay for the duration of the cleaning.
Two anchor fence cage doors comprised the entrance. With Cleo in her den at the far side of the enclosure it was safe for a keeper to open the first door, step inside and close it. This put the keeper in a small contained area of about ten to twelve square feet. Outside of the other door, but still inside the enclosure, Fletcher eagerly awaited play time. For this we kept a large rubber ball or something similar. Once the interior door was opened, Fletcher would bound in, play with us for a short while, and then attack his toy. Once this ritual was over we’d step around him and close that door. This left Fletcher between the two entry doors and Cleo hiding in her den. The business of hosing down the cage could begin.
I’d done this several times so on this particular day I had no reason to expect anything different. I squirted Cleo up into her den and opened the first cage door. I entered and closed that door behind me. I don’t recall what I had brought that day to entertain Fletcher, but I know I had something. I opened the second door fully expecting the big cat to roughhouse with me a bit and then go after his play toy. He did not. As soon as I opened the door Fletcher growled loudly and attacked me.
His assault knocked me back against the first door. This probably saved me from real serious injury by keeping me on my feet and my face away from the cat’s teeth and claws. Half standing on his hind legs now Fletcher dug his teeth into my stomach and his front claws into my back. At first he did nothing by hold me in this position. Alarmed, but still keeping my wits, I shifted my body away from the cat’s grip. Fletcher let loose a long menacing growl, bit down harder on my stomach, and dug deeper into my back – a warning not to try that again. I could feel my skin being punctured and torn. I knew I had a serious problem. To say I was frightened would be an understatement. Every move I made triggered an angry reaction from the cougar. The normally playful cat snarled at me with narrowed eyes and ears laid back on his head.
Thankfully, the fellow who had raised him was not far away and heard my call for help. It took some time but we slowly calmed Fletcher down and I escaped. Just as important, Fletcher did not escape from his enclosure and into a park crowded with visitors, many of whom had gathered around to watch the show. I was chewed and ripped up, but not too seriously. No one ever went in there with Fletcher again. From then on we cleaned from the outside.
So why had an otherwise playful and even tempered animal suddenly attacked me? It is hard to know the answer for certain. Something in my actions, Fletcher’s increased maturity, and the natural reactions of a big cat combined to bring on the attack. Perhaps I had invaded his space and the male cat was showing me who was boss. Maybe Fletcher had attacked with a playful intent in mind but his hunting instincts took over. Something from outside the enclosure might have startled him.
There is no doubt, however, about who was at fault. I was not a big cat trainer and I had not raised this one from a cub. I did not take the time to read the cat’s body language prior to opening the interior door. I just assumed all would be the same. I did not even think to have a backup person for safety. If the man who’d raised him not been there that day I might have been torn to pieces or worse. And then - the obvious question: what on earth gave me the idea that it was safe to go into an enclosure with two grown mountain lions? How utterly stupid!
But we loved and trusted all of our animals. I entered the elephant and hippo enclosure every day without fear. There we just a few that we absolutely knew would hurt or kill us if we got too close; mainly the tigers, lions, and grown primates. But even the lions respond like big kittens when we reached through the bars and scratched them. There it is again – that trust thing born of a love of animals and a desire to be as close to them as possible. It can kill you.
I was certainly more careful afterwards. Being in the claws and jaws of a big cat or in the grips of an animal the size of an elephant or the strength of a chimpanzee imparts an overwhelming humility. You realize the fragility of our human form. The animal is armed from nose to tail with superior weaponry, strength, and purpose. A ninth degree black belt in the most deadly martial art known to man will not help. In this one on one contest the human inevitably loses.
But keepers and trainers continue to put themselves in this situation all the time. One of them is paying the price even as I write these words. You’ll surely read about more such attacks and many more after that. But that won’t stop the kind of people who do this work. The love and fascination they have for animals is all encompassing and overpowering. Many safety precautions and protocols have been instituted since the days when I worked with exotic animals. Some have even gone too far in my opinion. But no matter what rules and regulations are written; no matter what warnings are given accidents are going to happen. In the end it is a personal responsibility and I hope the zoo in question does not have to pay an onerous price.