Note: This story was originally published on March 18 following the brief escape of two polar bears at the Cincinnati Zoo. In light of Saturday's events when a 4-year-old child fell into the gorilla enclosure, we've re-shared this story on zoo security.
When two polar bears (Berit and Little One) breached their behind-the-scenes containment area Wednesday, staff at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden may have been surprised, but they weren't unprepared.
Like many zoos across the country, the facility regularly conducts emergency drills for the potential escape of dangerous animals.
“We’re very proud of the response by our team,” said zoo director Thane Maynard. “We do drills, but you can also be sure when there’s something like this and you’re dealing with an actual polar bear, it’s very different from a drill -- it’s the real thing and people responded just exactly as trained. It couldn’t have been better; clear communication, clear decision making and the keepers, vets and security team -- every single one hit their marks.”
While Maynard emphasized that the bears never posed a threat to visitors -- they remained within a private area not accessible to the public -- he said their team followed every precaution including moving visitors to nearby buildings and exits. He said their exhibits feature double containment areas behind the scenes with locked doors, making it virtually impossible for animals to liberate themselves into the park.
Once teams gave the all clear, visitors were allowed to return.
“So there was not a risk of the animal getting out,” he said.
Moving visitors to safe locations tracks as standard protocol. Last September, the Indianapolis Zoo conducted a similar drill when cheetah Pounce breached his primary enclosure into a secondary landscaping area.
To stay prepared, Maynard said the Cincinnati Zoo conducts a number of emergency drills on a regular basis, including the movement of a dangerous animal, the potential escape of a dangerous animal, storm threats and venomous snake bites.
To date, Maynard said they’ve never had to a venomous snake bite, but have an excellent plan in place with UC Medical Center just across the street with anti venom on hand. In every drill scenario, a response teams prepares to take immediate action when called.
He said Wednesday went like clockwork.
“It went extremely well,” he said. “The keeper who first saw the bear got on the radio and notified the people in charge from security and from animal health, here’s the situation and everybody went down there first and ascertained if everyone is safe and is the bear contained and then from there what is the next step to control it.”
While animals such as polar bears are considered dangerous, Maynard explained even an animal as seemingly innocuous as a sea otter could pose a threat if loose. Once in the lake, he speculated the feisty otter would be difficult to capture. While the animal isn’t life threatening to people, he said it would have a ferocious bite if someone tried to catch it.
“So with a dangerous animal you just don’t grab a net and say alright we’re going to go out and scoop it up,” he said.
As Berit and Little One's adventure went viral, Maynard said a few media outlets completely missed the mark with accuracy, one of which reported an escaped grizzly bear running loose inside the zoo.
“We don’t have grizzly bears and nothing was walking around the zoo,” he said. “We do have a very clear safety protocol that involves our security team, our veterinary team – the animal health team and our primary concern is always safety.”