NZ zoo hushed up cheetah attack

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By RUTH HILL – Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 18 March 2007

Wellington Zoo has been accused of endangering public safety to protect its lucrative “rent-a-cheetah ” programme after revelations a big cat attacked two zoo keepers during a staff meeting.

Animal advocacy group Safe says the incident, which happened six months ago, was hushed up by zoo bosses.

Safe campaign director Hans Kriek said zoo visitors were allowed direct contact with the same cheetah soon after the attack, and within days, it was taken out for a school visit.

The zoo has been running its “cheetah encounter” programme since late 2005, hiring out Charlie and Delta for private events for a $2500 appearance fee.

The animals and their trainers have attended private parties, a pet store opening, university lectures, primary schools and an A&P show.

The zoo also sells encounters with the animals, where the public can meet and pet them in a special enclosure for $195.

A source told the Sunday Star-Times that a zoo keeper was bitten on the neck in August after a senior animal trainer lost control of a cheetah he had brought to a staff meeting.

The cheetah then attacked a zoo volunteer, biting him on the ankle.

Witnesses said the trainer then pinned the animal to the ground with his body and punched it hard several times in the face.

Last January, lion keeper Bob Bennett was mauled by two lions after he assumed a senior trainer, who had been in the enclosure with him, had locked the gate.

Kriek said staff who witnessed the attack were ordered by zoo management to “keep it quiet”.

Safe intends to lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry requesting an immediate investigation and the suspension of all public interactions with cheetahs. “If these claims prove to be correct, Wellington Zoo management must be held accountable and the cheetah encounter and rent-a-cheetah programmes terminated,” Kriek said.

He said there was “widespread disquiet” among zoo staff about the zoo’s increasingly commercial focus.

The Department of Labour confirmed it had received an informal complaint in September about the incident.

Occupational Safety and Health Wellington service manager Alan Cooper said inspectors contacted zoo authorities and established it was “a relatively minor incident”. He was satisfied “all appropriate steps were taken” and the zoo had good hazard management systems in place.

Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield said the incident had been an “unusual situation” and she was confident the encounter programme was safe. She said the keeper who was attacked was “bruised” but the animal’s teeth did not puncture his skin.

“These cheetahs have been involved in over 500 encounters since September 2005 without incident. The keeper in this case made an error of judgement but since then we have reviewed our protocols.”

Osh and Maf had reviewed safety procedures and were happy with them.

The trainer had been disciplined.

She said the zoo had changed its policy and now had “very strict” rules about where cheetahs were allowed off-site.

Fifield denied the zoo had attempted to hush up the incident “but we didn’t want rumours and innuendo flying around, we wanted the chance to investigate fully and establish the facts and debrief staff properly”.

She said there were “sensitivities” around privacy issues and management had to be mindful of making public comment. “It’s a shame that Safe refuses to engage with us one-on-one in this.”

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