Open-air barriers around the two gorilla exhibits at the Los Angeles Zoo would be “extremely difficult to climb over,” especially for a child, zoo officials said Wednesday.
A critically endangered gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo was killed over the Memorial Day weekend after a toddler fell into the animal’s exhibit. The boy was unharmed, but zoo keepers fatally shot the gorilla, named Harambe, after he dragged the child across the exhibit’s moat.
Harambe’s death set off public consternation over the zoo keepers’ decision to use a gun instead of a tranquilizer, and prompted chastisement of the boy’s mother.
Cincinnati zoo keepers have defended their actions, saying they would have risked upsetting the gorilla further by using a tranquilizer gun.
The western lowland gorilla that was killed is considered critically endangered, with threats to the species coming primarily from poaching and diseases, such as Ebola.
Los Angeles Zoo officials Wednesday said similar incidences of visitors getting into zoo exhibits, potentially endangering the lives of the patron and the animals, have been rare here.
“The L.A. Zoo gets roughly 1.7 million visitors a year, and incidents where a person ends up inside an animal’s habitat are extremely rare, even nonexistent in most years,” Zoo Director John Lewis said. “In the event of such an incident occurring, the zoo has safety protocols and procedures in place and conducts several safety drills a year in preparation.”
He added that “Thankfully, the L.A. Zoo hasn’t had an incident where it has had to make the difficult decision to harm an animal to save a human life.”
The zoo’s two gorilla exhibits have fencing about 42 inches high and cantilevered toward the viewer, making the barriers “extremely difficult to climb over,” according to Lewis.
The fencing cables are also too close together for a person, including a child, to get through, he said.
In other parts of the exhibits, the gorillas are separated from viewers by glass barriers without any openings, he said.
“It really would take quite a bit of effort” for a person to get into the exhibits, Lewis said.
Lewis said there are a variety of barriers throughout the zoo, but they are either difficult to climb over or have openings that are too small to fit through.
Lewis said if someone does slip into the exhibits or habitats, “the protocol is first and foremost to protect human life,” but he added the first step would be to direct the animal away from the trespasser by using a trained response call.
Lewis said the decision to use a tranquilizer or a regular gun would be “dependent on the behavior of the animal and the visitor.”
In 2011, a developmentally disabled zoo patron got into an elephant exhibit and came close to two elephants, Lewis said. Because the animals were accustomed to humans, they did not react to the trespasser. Neither the elephants nor the human were harmed in that incident, Lewis said.
The elephant habitat has two layers of fencing. The one closest to patrons is cantilevered and tightly woven, and beyond that is an electrified fence, Lewis said.
In the 2011 incident, the zoo patron was able to slip into the elephant habitat through a lower part of the inner fence that had not been electrified. Since then, the fence, which had been installed to keep the elephants inside, was also electrified in the lower half to keep people out.
— City News Service