How safe are SA zoos for our kids?

A gorrilla jumps into the glass at its enclosure in the Pretoria Zoo, 9 June 2016, the enclosure is safely built and the animals are viewed through several layers of glass. Picture: Jacques Nelles

In the wake of the Harambe tragedy in the US, we visit Gauteng’s zoos and check their safety protocols.

Wild animals are dangerous and should not to be taken lightly.

This was the message from both Craig Allenby, media liaison for Pretoria Zoo, and Tshepang Makganye, general manager of conservation management at the Johannesburg Zoo, commenting on the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo in the US last month when a silverback gorilla named Harambe had to be shot after a toddler fell into his enclosure.

Makganye stressed: “They are wild animals and sometimes people mistake them for being tame.”

The shooting of Harambe by zookeepers led to an outrcy.

A bystander recorded the incident when the toddler fell into the enclosure and posted it to YouTube. It made international news and garnered opposing opinions on whether or not the zoo did the right thing in shooting the great ape. Zoo director Thane Maynard said the child was being dragged and they had no choice in their actions as a tranquiliser would have agitated the gorilla.

See for yourself:

Allenby warned not to project unwarranted emotions on to the case, such as saying that “Harambe was keeping the boy safe”.

“This would not have been an easy decision for them. You develop bonds with the animals, they become like family. And they would have weighed up the situation fully before making the decision to kill him.”

Local knowledge of the animal plays a key role in making a decision like that.

“It is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Different animals have different personalities,” said Allenby.

“Harambe was a dominant male. His role was to protect the group. So he was probably doing what came naturally.”

The gorilla enclosure in the Pretoria Zoo has several layers of glass through which visitors can view the animals. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The gorilla enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo has several layers of glass through which visitors can view the animals. Picture: Jacques Nelles

In the Pretoria Zoo in 1999, a man climbed into the lion enclosure and the zoo staff faced a similar decision as those in Cincinnati.

“Local knowledge played a vital role in our decision. We knew that the lioness had eaten that morning and so she was not hungry. She had dragged the guy into a tree but we knew she wasn’t aggressive; she might play with him but was not likely to kill him.” This afforded them the time they needed to tranquilise her and rescue the man.

Darting an animal is not always a solution, as it can take up to five minutes to work.

“Tranquilising is traumatic for the animal,” says Allenby. “The dart hits the animal and they often run. Harambe could have flung the child against the wall or dragged him.”

Makganye said that it also depended on whether the animal would respond to being called by his keeper, because often the first action would be to try to call the animal into its night enclosure.

Zoos have strict safety protocols in place and do safety drills every two to four weeks.

“When we do drills, we mimic a range of scenarios, such as an animal escape, accidentally darting someone with a dangerous drug, fire and even one animal getting into another one’s enclosure,” said Makganye.

Well-thought-out enclosures that mimic an animal’s natural behaviour are the first step in keeping people away from the animals.

“For potentially dangerous animals, our first barrier is the water moat that also provides life and an aesthetic appeal. Then there is a double fence, high walls and often glass windows,” said Makganye.

The gorilla enclosures at the Pretoria Zoo are high-walled with thick glass panels through which visitors can see the creatures. During The Citizen‘s visit to the zoo, a number of schoolchildren were taunting the male gorilla and he began to bang against the glass. This emphasised the need for proper supervision during visits.

“We have a big problem with people throwing food at the animals,” said Makganye.

A gorilla hits the glass of its enclosure in the Pretoria Zoo. Picture: Jacques Nelles

A gorilla hits the glass of its enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo. Picture: Jacques Nelles

“We are always looking to educate visitors by having guides that give a talk on safety, littering and not feeding the animals. We have also increased the number of signs around the zoo asking patrons not to feed the animals.”

Both zoos have staff patrolling.

“It would take less than five minutes for us to realise that something was wrong,” said Makganye. “And all of our staff carry two-way radios so that we can react fast if something does happen.”

Ongoing maintenance to the enclosures, fences and other barriers are done in both zoos in an effort to ensure that visitors cannot put themselves in harm’s way.

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