BY FRANKLIN HAYES
Gulf Breeze News
It’s been a wild week at the Northwest Florida Zoo, as two cougars escaped from their cages Nov. 14, and another predatory cat clawed a zookeeper the day before. The zookeeper was flown to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola via LifeFlight after a nasty run in with a 2-year-old male leopard. The very next day, state wildlife officials and sheriff’s deputies helped zookeepers locate and tranquilize two cougars that escaped from their pens Tuesday afternoon.
“I just hope these problems don’t come in threes,” said the zoo’s executive director H. Doug Kemper Jr. “Let’s just say I’m not going to work with any venomous snakes for a while.”
In the first incident, 19-yearold zookeeper Adrianna Leopard got too close to the cage of Osiris, an 80 – pound African Leopard named after the Egyptian god of life, death and fertility. The cat snagged Leopard’s sleeve and pulled her wrist into the cage. As a result, the animal attendant received stitches down her middle finger into her palm and down her pinkie finger to the wrist on her right hand, zoo officials said. Baptist Hospital spokesperson Karen Smith said LifeFlight received the call around 9 a.m. and Leopard had been treated and released in fair condition by noon.
“The cat didn’t attack her; it was probably after her soft and fuzzy jacket,” Kemper said, adding that the large cats are used to large plush play toys.
“She was in an area where we typically have two people at a time,” said Natalie Akin, the zoo’s director of visitor services. Akin also said that Leopard normally takes care of the Wild Florida exhibit that houses alligators, coyotes and foxes.
“She was in a good deal of pain, but a lot of that was anxiety,” Kemper said. “We’re not going to chastise her any further because she is a promising young zoo keeper. She usually follows all procedures. She kept telling people that she was sorry. She didn’t want us to blame the cat, and we don’t.”
Kemper said Leopard was put on light duty preparing meals as she returned to work last week. Kemper also said there would be no repercussions for Osiris.
A little more than 24 hours after the “Leopard claws Leopard” incident, two fullgrown cougars were spotted outside their cages. The Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Midway Fire
District responded to help zookeepers track and subdue the animals. Kemper said all zoo guests were evacuated to secure areas within five to 10 minutes of the initial reports. There were no injuries.
Both animals were corralled and tranquilized on zoo property within hours of their escape. Heat seeking technology aboard the Escambia Sheriff’s Office helicopter helped zoo staff locate the final escapee just before sunset.
“We have high powered weapons, such as rifles and shot guns in the event an animal is threatening a group of people, but we hope we don’t have to use them,” Kemper said. “I’m real proud of our staff’s efforts to close the park down and move visitors into secure areas.”