Hercules unchained

Many mistakes were made the day a 340-pound gorilla got loose at the Dallas Zoo. One keeper almost paid for them with her life. But should the deputy zoo director have paid for them with his career?

According to primate supervisor John Fried, the gorillas seem to enjoy walking above the heads of the keepers, who must guard against being peed on.

What's good for the animals--added space, nature-like habitats--often means more work for the keepers, but few complain, at least not about doing more for the animals. Most keepers see their work as less a job than a labor of love--a chance to bond with exotic creatures, to learn their habits and personalities, to help them thrive as much as possible in captivity.

But that doesn't mean the keepers didn't have other things to complain about. In recent years, a decided rift had grown between zoo labor and management. The keepers, who worked most closely with the animals, felt the administrators and veterinary staff treated them like second-class citizens and dismissed any advice they had on animal care. Several years ago, the non-management staff had formed the Zoo Advisory Committee to make sure upper management and Zoo Director Rich Buickerood heard their voices.

Last summer, the committee conducted a survey showing that morale among the ranks was low. The problem was caused, in part, by understaffing and feelings that the workers were unappreciated, according to a copy of the survey results obtained by the Dallas Observer. Numerous survey respondents seemed to agree that the source of the morale problems was Deputy Director Fred LaRue, a nine-year veteran of the zoo who was described repeatedly as paranoid and irrational, a micromanager prone to angry outbursts. The respondents also criticized senior veterinarian Dr. Tom Alvarado for being imperious and mammal curator Ken Kaemmerer for being too weak to stand up to either of them.

Several workers went so far as to describe the situation as an accident in the making. "Animal operations are compromised on every level...This is a lawsuit waiting to happen," one worker wrote ominously. "I guess nothing will get done until someone is seriously hurt," wrote another.

Working on the front lines of animal care is risky. Shifting animals around when the keepers clean their cages or move them outside is the most dangerous aspect, and in the gorilla habitat, with its myriad rooms, walkways, and doors, a keeper's job is particularly tricky.

Unsecured doors had become a problem at the Dallas Zoo. A little more than a year ago, a keeper forgot to shut the cage in the new chimpanzee building in the Wilds of Africa exhibit, and three chimps escaped. When several zoo employees arrived at the building, the chimps were in a hallway squirting each other with a hose, pushing a broom, and tossing a box of laundry detergent up and down, mimicking their keepers. Using a fire extinguisher, several staff members corralled the chimps into their cage without incident, but it was a close call. Chimps can be vicious.

Earlier this year, Jenny, the oldest gorilla at the zoo, also got loose. A keeper had forgotten to close the keeper access door from the building to the habitat, and Jenny had started to wander back inside after being put on exhibit. When the startled keeper saw her, she sternly admonished Jenny to go back outside--which, much to the keeper's relief, she did.

A stickler for safety, Fred LaRue dealt harshly with such lapses. Known for his explosive temper, he would dress down the offending worker then write a letter of reprimand and place it in the worker's personnel file. One keeper thought a more constructive solution--or at least an additional precaution--would be to put up signs around the habitats reminding keepers to close cage doors. LaRue dismissed the suggestion.

The staff's ominous warnings about safety issues and LaRue's erratic behavior would prove prophetic. Just as the staff had predicted, people soon would get hurt at the zoo. Ironically, the person who zealously--perhaps overzealously--tried to prevent tragedy also would become its victim.

By 9 a.m., McClurg and Froelich had spread fruits, vegetables, and a special chow throughout the habitat and were ready to put the gorillas on exhibit and clean their night quarters in the gorilla building.

The gorilla building is a dank, gray cinder-block affair with access to two separate outdoor habitats, one for Hercules' troop, the other for Fubo's. There are separate sleeping quarters and two community rooms, on the north and south ends, that are linked by a hallway and a room for keepers to work in. The main hallway has exits on the north and south and is divided into three sections by two sets of double doors. The gorillas move around the building through overhead chutes that have doors that can block access to different areas. Windows and mesh screens allow the keepers to coax the animals through the building without coming into direct contact with them.

McClurg began by shifting Fubo's troop from the building into the north habitat. The gorillas were trained to come to a door between the building and the habitat, stand on a scale, then be let outside in exchange for some treat such as raisins. Then McClurg cajoled the two boys, Jabari and Patrick, from their bedrooms into the south community room. Then she moved Hercules into the north community room.

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