Maryland Zoo tries to balance animal encounters with safety

The Maryland Zoo does routine security checks to prevent incidents like the Cincinnati gorilla shooting.

Takia Hall had never before seen a giraffe up close. But on a field trip to the Maryland Zoo on Wednesday with her 5-year-old son's class, she and her child were able to get close enough feed the animals.

It was the kind of encounter that zoos want to make happen. But they must balance it against the safety of visitors and animals.

That balance was upset over the weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo, where a 3-year-old boy entered the Gorilla World enclosure.

Video footage showed the gorilla Harambe dragging the boy across the concrete exhibit. Zoo staffers destroyed the endangered western lowland gorilla out of concern for the child's safety.

Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard said the gorilla "exhibit is safe, the barrier is safe." He noted that the enclosure is checked routinely by federal inspectors and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

He said the incident Saturday was the first time a visitor had entered Gorilla World, which opened in 1978. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums will investigate.

At the Maryland Zoo, general curator Mike McClure says staff routinely evaluate security measures to prevent such incidents.

"That's something we do on a regular basis," he said. "Of course, you think: 'What if that happened here?'"

McClure has worked at the zoo for 20 years. When staff design an exhibit, he said, they must balance ways to keep the public from getting into area while also creating "the best possible experience."

"You need to do that by getting them as close as safely as possible," McClure said.

He said the zoo's recently renovated penguin exhibit achieves that balance. The glass allows visitors to get right up to the animals but provides a safe barrier.

Designers set the height of the glass to keep visitors from being able to reach in.

Staff now are working on the elephant exhibit, which holds four of the large animals. McClure said the change will follow accreditation standards and improve safety for staff.

McClure said he could not recall an incident in which a visitor managed to get inside an exhibit. He said most visitors respect the barriers.

He also said the Cincinnati Zoo made the correct decision in shooting Harambe. He said all zoos have plans in place for worst-case scenarios.

"Having to destroy an animal … is something we are well aware of and something we prepare for," he said, but it's not the default decision.

The Maryland Zoo does not have gorillas.

Some have called for charges against the boys' parents in the Cincinnati incident. Police are investigating their actions.

In a statement Wednesday, the parents thanked Cincinnati Zoo staff for "their actions taken to protect our child."

They said that the boy is well and that some people have offered money. They recommended that well-wishers make a donation to the Cincinnati Zoo in Harambe's name.

Christine Macander, who was at the Maryland Zoo on Wednesday with her 3-year-old grandson, said the responsibility for the child rests with the parents.

During her visit, she said, she saw a woman with three children. One ran off to look at the flamingos and tried to climb a fence.

"You just have to be aware and responsible," she said.

Maureen Peterman, a second-grade teacher in Frederick County, visited the zoo Wednesday with her class.

She said there's always a concern that kids might wander off. She said the school made sure to have one parent for every four children during the visit.

Younger children should have still more chaperons, she said. Fewer chaperons, she said, "would make me uncomfortable."

Danielle Ponieman, who grew up going to the zoo, said she doesn't have concerns when taking her two children.

"I think the Baltimore zoo is beautiful. I think they've done a great job with it," Ponieman said. "I've been coming here since I was a child, and just to see the things they've done over the years, it really makes me happy and proud."

But Ponieman said parents should remain vigilant.

"I think it's just important, wherever you are with your children, to keep a close eye on them," she said. "Anybody can lose a child for a second, but it's really up to the parents to do their best job to keep the children safe."

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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