Minnesota Zoo stages leopard escape drill

Leopard on the loose wreaks havoc**

* *Well, not really. But zoo employees and public safety responders practiced Thursday how to handle such an emergency in a drill involving a mock escape of an Amur leopard.

By DEAN SPIROS, Star Tribune

Last update: September 10, 2009 – 11:19 PM

The Minnesota Zoo has never had a dangerous animal escape in its 31 years in Apple Valley. Thursday, in the first full-fledged drill the zoo has ever held, nearly 100 zoo, city and state employees teamed up to gain experience they hope never to have to call on.

In a mock escape, an Amur leopard got loose from a holding building and injured two staff members. Police, fire department and ambulance personnel were alerted, and the 485-acre site was secured.

One helicopter was brought in to transfer the injured to a hospital, another to search the grounds for the escaped leopard. Tony Fisher, one of the 15 members of the zoo’s firearms team, boarded the helicopter with the job of shooting and killing the leopard.

The Amur leopard is one of only a handful of species of carnivores at the zoo. The largest include the Amur tiger, the puma and the grizzly bear. Tranquilizers are not used on carnivores because they would remain deadly in the 10 minutes it typically takes for a tranquilizer to take effect.

There are four gun safes on zoo grounds containing approximately 16 weapons.

As many as 8,000 visitors could be at the zoo at one time, and evacuation procedures after an animal escape mirror those during severe weather. Vehicles go out on the trails to pick people up. They are secured in a building with staff members armed with radios.

Thursday’s drill was five years in the making, Minnesota Zoo public relations manager Kelly Lessard said, and it will be another five years before a full drill is repeated.

Kevin Willis, director of Bio Programs, said the staff learned some important things during the drill. “The helicopter could not hear us on our radios so we had to go through the fire department,” he said. “We also got a better idea of response times.”

Dean Spiros – 952-882-9203



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