Procedures reviewed after lion incident at zoo
By Brent Killackey
RACINE – When it comes to cats – especially large cats like lions – don’t expect them to move when you want them to.
It took more than six hours Thursday to lure Elsa, a 1-year-old African lioness, far enough into an outdoor exhibit so that zoo employees could safety close a 4-by-4-foot metal door between the off-exhibit lion’s den and the animal care staff’s secure work area.
Discovery of that open door – and the potential that Elsa could get into that secure work area – prompted the evacuation of the zoo about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
Zoo employees tried scaring Elsa further into the outdoor exhibit by shooting a fire extinguisher under another door, but apparently she
wasn’t close enough to care. And she wasn’t immediately tempted by food in the outdoor exhibit because she had eaten a big breakfast.
It wasn’t until about 6 p.m. when Elsa finally moved far enough into the outdoor exhibit for a zoo employee to safely enter the work area and shut the door, said Jay Christie, president and CEO of the Racine Zoo, in an interview Friday morning.
"It could have been worse," Christie said. "Lions in Africa can go a couple of weeks between eating."
Christie said it was human error and not any mechanical issues behind the open door.
"We really have to chock this one up to a lapse in procedures," Christie said.
On Friday morning, zoo officials conducted a debriefing regarding the incident, which ultimately didn’t pose any safety risk for visitors, Christie said.
"I’m guessing that in the final analysis it will come up that this was preventable, but not something that’s going to justify some major overhaul of the way we do things," Christie said.
The zoo may install a few more remote cameras to eliminate any blind spots in the lions’ area of the building, he said.
The zoo may explore establishing procedures that would handle a similar situation differently in the future, such as ways to bring the matter to a conclusion faster, probably without needing to involve the police or evacuating the zoo campus, he said.
There was never any danger of Elsa escaping onto the zoo grounds because the staff’s work area where the open door led was secure, in effect designed to ensure an animal couldn’t escape under just such an eventuality.
Thursday’s incident won’t change plans to introduce Elsa to Aslan, a male African lion of similar age. The zoo anticipates a low key introduction in the next month. First, they want to make sure water plumbing for hoses is properly in place in case the two don’t get along and need to be hosed apart.
After Elsa and Aslan mature, there are hopes of breeding.
"For the first time in over a decade, we are being encouraged to breed lions, but not right away because they’re both still so young," Christie said. "Once matured, we know that the genetics are right, so it would be a good match-up and we hope we could take it to the next level."
The younger lions won’t simultaneously share the outdoor exhibit with Savannah, the zoo’s longtime lion resident, until they get older and bigger.
"She really is too dominant now," Christie said about 12-year-old Savannah.
Elsa will get her regular opportunities to wander the outdoor exhibit this weekend.
She’s easy to recognize: "She would be the only lion outside without some kind of mane," Christie said.
The Racine Zoo’s winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily (last admission at 4 p.m.)
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12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
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