Until a tragedy such as the Christmas tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo, most zoo visitors around the nation probably gave little thought to the safety features that keep dangerous animals at bay.
Many -- including personnel at the zoos nationwide -- now are taking a second look at those features. Special moats and walls that had been taken for granted now are being re-examined as a result of the tiger escape and the fatal mauling of a visitor in San Francisco.
The news from Columbia's Riverbanks Zoo, South Carolina's most prominent zoo, is reassuring. The morning after hearing about the fatal tiger attack, Ed Diebold, director of animal collections at Riverbanks, was scouring the zoo's big-cat exhibit. The tiger exhibits at Riverbanks feature a 22-foot wide dry "moat" and 17-foot sheer walls.
Zoo officials in San Francisco recently disclosed that their moat walls were only 12 feet high, well below industry standards. Officials had not been aware of that until Tatiana, a 350-pound Siberian tiger, escaped, killing one man and injuring two others.
Zoo officials stress that any animal is capable of unanticipated actions. But Riverbanks Zoo has a series of strict safety measures designed to guard even against the unexpected.
For example, each large animal barn has at least two locked doors. The gorilla barn has more than 50 locks.
The padlocks require keys, and keepers have keys only for the area in which they work. Failing to lock a door is a firing offense, with no second chances.
Zoo officials also inspect containment areas daily to ensure that no limbs or other foreign objects that might permit an animal to escape have fallen into the area. Each keeper also is equipped with pepper spray and a radio, and 12 staffers also have SLED training and access to rifles.
But as the incident in San Francisco indicates, visitors also need to act sensibly around the animals. Witnesses have stated that before the tiger escaped, the three victims had been taunting and harassing her. While they may have been unaware that they were creating a dangerous situation, they no doubt agitated the tiger with their actions.
This tragedy is a reminder that zoo animals are not tame. Tigers and other big cats are top-of-the-line predators capable of bringing down big game, much less a human.
We are privileged to watch them -- from a safe distance -- in something resembling a natural environment. But any close interaction is dangerous.
We presume that every major accredited zoo in the nation is taking a close look at its big-cat exhibits as well as those of all the other potentially dangerous animals. Escapes by large animals thankfully are rare, and harm to zoo visitors is even rarer.
But the tiger attack in San Francisco was a wake-up call for zoos everywhere, and we hope it will prompt any changes necessary to ensure public safety.
Tiger attack at San Franciseo zoo prompt others to re-examine their safety features.
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