How many times have you been to the zoo this year? Once, twice, more? Zoo parks are a popular attraction in the UK, providing safe family-orientated experiences that allow visitors to engage with animals that they might otherwise never get to see.
However, a question that may not even cross your mind, is what happens when an animal escapes?
There have been several escapee animals from UK zoos over the years. Notable occasions include the escape of a tusked peccary from Paignton Zoo in 2005, a macaque from Marwell Zoo in 2009, and the escape of five wolves from Colchester Zoo and a troop of Chimpanzees from Twycross Zoo, both in 2013.
In both of the 2013 instances, the animals were able to be contained before anybody was hurt; the Twycross Chimps, who had escaped during enclosure transitions, were able to be re-captured entirely. Sadly, of the five wolves which were able to break through the steel mesh fence designed to contain them at Colchester, although two were tranquilised, three were shot. This was deemed necessary action, as they had escaped the zoo area and posed a threat to the public.
Although zoo escapes are rare, efficient coping strategies are essential in order to protect visitors, UK residents and UK wildlife from any damage. This is particularly crucial when the escaped animals are large carnivores or are especially destructive. So in order to reduce the threat of, and effectively deal with the escape of British zoo animals, the following steps are taken.
Zoos build enclosures that have:
– High strong walls
– Inner and outer perimeters
– Room for movement of emergency vehicles within
– Tough construction materials such as safety glass or steel mesh
– Safety enclosures to minimise escape during enclosure moving
Many other buildings in zoo parks, such as restaurants or visitor centres, also double up as safety refuges in case an animal escapes.
This involves ensuring that all keepers and associates have a thorough knowledge of the species kept at the zoo, and are aware of the risks they could potentially pose. Many zoos use a ranking system based on the level of risk they think a species could pose in an escape; for example, in a 3 level scale, species such as wolves, rhinos, tigers and elephants would be level one. Level one animals are those said to be likely to cause ‘serious injury or disease that would be likely to create a serious threat to human life’, level two animals are those that may also cause injury or illness, but not to a level that would be considered a threat to human life. All other species fall into level 3, where the threat level is much less serious.
Zoo staff are also made aware of points in the day when risk might increase, such as during feeding times/ maintenance work or other such circumstances. Enclosures are regularly checked and if visitors are able to pass through animal enclosures, keepers are usually on hand in case of serious incidents.
As they have a legal obligation to protect visitors and nearby residents, zoos often carry out practice emergency drills a couple of times a year. This involves ensuring each staff member knows what their role would be in an event of an escape, and also how a response would be altered depending on the type of animal that has escaped. Other factors include location; dealing with how far an animal can get, where it might go and who needs to be warned. This might include contacting the police or releasing a public warning, as was carried out when the wolves escaped from Colchestor.
Dealing with the public
Sadly, often when a dangerous animal escapes into a public area, the only solution is to shoot it before human lives are endangered. Not only is the animal’s behaviour unpredictable, but the reaction of the human individuals that could come upon them are also unpredictable. Panic can often make a situation worse, so what and how much the public will be told, depends on what the zoo considers to be appropriate.
Sometimes this may mean that the public are not given the full information; this is a controversial issue, as although many people understand the need to limit hysteria, or panic that could complicate matters in the event of an animal escape, others may believe that they would feel safer and more secure if they were given full knowledge of the situation. Limiting the information provided seeks to protect both people and the escaped animal; if a dangerous animal is found in a residential area, panic may mean result in either one of, or both, parties becoming injured.
This would be a last resort for the zoo; although none of the staff would like to see an animal shot, it may be deemed necessary if there is no other option. Usually, lethal force would be deployed by suitably trained zoo staff, in order to cause the animal minimum pain and distress.
Although these steps are usually very effective for dealing with escaped animals, one particularly sad event occurred at San Francisco zoo in 2007. This involved the escape of a Siberian tigress, which then mauled two men and killed a 17 year old before, before being shot herself. Occurrences like this are very rare; in the UK there have so far been no zoo escapes that have cost the lives of humans. Zoo escapes in entirety are very rare, thanks to the safety steps taken by zoos. However, there is always a risk.
Do you think that zoos pose a risk to British residents/wildlife? Would you be happy living near one? Is it fair to the zoo animals that may suffer as a result of escape?
Zoos remain to be a controversial issue; the risk posed by potential animal escapees is just one element to consider.
If you’d like to read more, especially about the Colchestor zoo incident, please follow this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-25462900
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