CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. zoos are left to decide under vague federal rules how to make animal exhibits safe, occasionally resulting in people getting into enclosures like a child who was rescued from a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, industry officials and experts said.
Zoo officials shot dead a critically endangered western lowland gorilla on Saturday after a 4-year-old got into its enclosure. The killing of 450-pound (200-kg), 17-year-old Harambe drew public outrage and questions about safety standards at zoos across the country and may result in criminal charges.
The case highlights the trade-offs zoos make between safety and enabling visitors to get close-up views of the animals that they love.
“The zoo compromised safety for having an aesthetically pleasing enclosure,” said Mitchel Kalmanson, president of Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, Florida, which insures animal facilities.
“It should have had better fencing and a safety net and/or a secondary barrier. If they had a net in there, the boy wouldn’t have fallen 15 feet into a moat where the animal was,” he added.
U.S. rules spell out that contact between humans and dangerous animals must be avoided but are vague on how to achieve that, industry officials and experts said. The federal Animal Welfare Act says zoos must have a barrier that restricts physical contact between the public and nonhuman primates, but it does not specify height or material.
The American Zoo Association, which inspects its accredited members, says, “Some means of deterring public contact with animals must be in place” but does not set specifications.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, has broad discretion to administer those standards, said James F. Gesualdi, special professor of law at Hofstra University and an expert on animals and the law.
“Where they can be problematic is there can be differences of opinion as to what may be required,” Gesualdi said.
Despite the vague standards, the incidents are far from common. About 181 million people visit U.S. zoos and aquariums every year, according to the American Zoo Association, but only about 20 adults and children have been hurt or killed by zoo animals inside enclosures since 1990, according to the Born Free USA animal advocacy group.
Dozens more injuries were caused by animals escaping or by animal attacks on zookeepers or handlers, according to Born Free.
The Cincinnati Zoo, which is accredited by the American Zoo Association, said it more than meets standards with its three-foot-high barrier around the gorilla enclosure and has passed inspections.
American Zoo Association spokesman Rob Vernon said the organization will learn from the Cincinnati incident and make improvements.
However, Alan Sironen, an Ohio-based zoo consultant, said the federal rules already work well to protect animals and the public alike.
“There are millions upon millions of visitors to zoos every year,” he said. “It’s a tragedy what happened in Cincinnati, but that zoo has been open a long time and it’s very professionally run.”
Critics say people are allowed to get too close to the animals, resulting in some getting in trouble for trespassing and others suing for lack of safety.
In Ohio, two adults pleaded guilty in the past year to trespassing at zoos. In one case, a woman dropped her 2-year-old into a cheetah cage at the Cleveland zoo. In another, a man took a video of himself after jumping an outer fence at the Columbus zoo to get close to cougars.
In 2012, a 2-year-old boy fell into an African wild dog exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo and was mauled to death.
The parents of that boy, Maddox Derkosh, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the zoo, claiming the barrier was too low, according to Robert Mongeluzzi Jr, a Philadelphia personal injury lawyer who handled the case. The case was resolved with a confidential settlement.
“Any zoo that has an exhibit where a child can gain entry is deficient and unsafe,” Mongeluzzi said on Tuesday. “Zoos have to be designed to keep children and patrons away from animals. The easiest way to handle that is with solid, transparent glass or Plexiglass.”
At least one zoo has made expensive upgrades to its gorilla exhibit to protect the public.
In 2003, a 300-pound gorilla escaped from its enclosure at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, injuring a 2-year-old girl and a teenage zoo employee. The male gorilla, known as Little Joe, then 10 years old, roamed through the zoo and nearby streets for nearly two hours before it was tranquilized and subdued.
Little Joe was kept out of the public eye for over three years but is now on show again after the zoo completed in 2007 a $2.3 million renovation of the gorilla exhibit including a glass-walled cage featuring a mesh cap of woven steel.
Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Ben Klayman and Cynthia Osterman