Zoo workers say they have to be prepared for the unpredictable
BY REBECCA ADAMUS
“Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s death shocked zoo workers, while it highlighted the inherent risks they take when working with wild animals.
Chris DeLorey, education director for Brevard Zoo, had met Irwin on several occasions. He said that despite Irwin’s image as a renegade, the Australian television personality wasn’t foolhardy.
“(Irwin) definitely knew what he was doing,” DeLorey said.
Irwin, popular host of “Crocodile Hunter,” died after his heart was pierced by the poisonous spine of a stingray at the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. He was 44.
Viewed as a passionate wildlife enthusiast by some and flagrant risk-taker by others for getting too close to the large reptiles filmed for his shows, Irwin never escaped his image as the latter, and he didn’t try to.
In 2004, he was lambasted for feeding a caged crocodile with his infant son slung under one arm. He insisted he controlled both the child and the crocodile.
“He ignited the imagination of children,” DeLorey added. “It may be somehow different from what we try to do here. His goal wasn’t education, but getting people excited about things in nature.”
The zoo’s goals, however, are not so unlike Irwin’s goal in that both share wild animals with the world while mitigating the inherent risks.
One way Brevard Zoo does that is to carefully select animals it allows to interact with the public.
Workers are trained to handle “good-natured” animals and learn to recognize individual temperaments. For example, when the savannah monitor shows signs of getting flustered by too much human petting, he gets retired for the day. But anyone who works with animals simply must be prepared for the unpredictable, DeLorey said. Unlike Irwin, the zoo has the luxury of training wild animals and learning from
their behavior over time.
“If you have a lot of fear, you probably shouldn’t be handling animals,” he said.
For her protection, zoo veterinarian Deb Anderson treats some animals such as otters, rhinos, gibbons and jaguars through a fence. They are trained to lie down while she takes blood samples or checks their teeth.
Anderson recalled one potentially dangerous brush with a wild animal in her previous job at an animal hospital. A tranquilized possum awoke unexpectedly and bit Anderson “through a couple of fingernails,” she said.
Stingray deaths worldwide are rare, and a nonpoisonous, small species of stingray inhabits the Indian River Lagoon, DeLorey said. Occasionally tourists or locals have been stung accidentally when they stepped on one.
These minor attacks by a stingray without venom are not life-threatening, he said. Some zoo visitors expressed surprise at the irony of Irwin’s death by stingray as opposed to an attack by a predatory animal.
“I would expect to hear a rhinoceros or alligator. We get people at the pier stung by stingrays all the time,” said Cape Canaveral resident Sara Johnson, 23.
Upon hearing the news, her brother, Brian, 25, said he first thought Irwin somehow “was asking for it,” because of his reputation for getting very close to reptiles.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “If you play with fire, you might get burned.”
Contact Adamus at 242-3618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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