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?

While it is impossible to have a one-size-fits-all response to a life-threatening crisis, especially when it involves the unpredictability of animals, the truth is that some fundamental missteps were made this day. This story is based on eyewitnesses' written accounts of the attack, copies of which were obtained by the Observer, plus interviews with zoo staff, most of whom refused to be quoted by name. While no one will ever know whether the outcome that November day might have been different, many people who work at the zoo were left with the impression that not enough was done to rescue Jennifer McClurg.

Ken Kaemmerer, curator of mammals, was the emergency response team leader that day. He was talking with Linda King and Suzy Steele, an animal-research technician, at the zoo annex near the front gates when Froelich's frantic call came in. As he hurried from the building, he stopped to tell the news to his boss LaRue, who, in typical fashion, was at work even though it was his day off. He followed Kaemmerer, King, and Steele over to the gorilla building.

As zoo workers converged on the building, Kaemmerer directed several of them to retrieve fire extinguishers. There was one inside the gorilla building, but it was impossible to get to safely. The closest ones were some distance away at the gorilla research station, the chimp viewing area, and the hospital.

Kaemmerer directed Suzy Steele to go to the north side of the building and look through the door windows to see whether she could spot Hercules and McClurg. Steele saw McClurg curled up in a fetal position in the main keeper hallway that bisected the building. She reported over the radio that Hercules had run past McClurg and kicked her, then dragged her up and down the hallway. A keeper asked whether the paramedics should be called. LaRue said it was premature--a decision he would come to regret. Kaemmerer also would later say he regretted not overriding LaRue's decision.

Kaemmerer and LaRue considered their options while waiting for the vet to arrive to discuss the best method of capture. According to the guidelines, when a Code Red is called, the vet is supposed to come immediately to the escape site and prepare to immobilize the animal. Dr. Kathryn Gamble, the assistant zoo vet, was on duty this day. She acknowledged to Kaemmerer that she had heard the code, but she was in the middle of a procedure and told him she would be there as soon as she could.

When the code was sounded, Gamble and several veterinary technicians were in Zoo North, on the other side of the zoo from the gorilla building. Gamble had just darted two peccaries--large, wild pigs--and was waiting for them to become sedated so she could draw blood for their annual physicals. As soon as the code came over the radio, Cathy Painter, one of Gamble's assistants, started to pack up the equipment, assuming they would stop what they were doing and rush right over. Gamble commanded her staff to continue the procedure.

"Let's just wait and see what happens," Gamble told her assistants, according to one of their written reports. "I would only be another person that would make the gorilla nervous."

Gamble instructed the workers to remove the pigs from their stalls and begin drawing blood. For the next 10 minutes, Gamble and her assistants worked on the pigs while they monitored the radio, from which they could clearly hear reports that Hercules was repeatedly attacking McClurg. At one point, Painter, a friend of McClurg's, became so upset that she could not continue, and Gamble had to finish the physicals on both animals herself.

Halfway through the procedure, Kaemmerer called Gamble again and asked where she was. She told him she had two animals under anesthesia and couldn't come at the time. Twenty minutes after the vet first learned that Hercules was loose, she finally headed over to the gorilla building with her tranquilizer gun.

The zoo has an emergency weapons team that has certain duties in a Code Red, according to the printed guidelines. Any members of the emergency response team who are on the grounds during an animal escape are supposed to check in with the emergency response team leader then retrieve a weapon and get over to the area of the escape. Assorted rifles and shotguns previously were kept in designated areas throughout the zoo, but LaRue recently had decided it would be safer to lock them all up inside the annex, where the zoo administrative offices are. But neither he nor Kaemmerer thought to grab a gun before leaving the annex.

Zoo North bird supervisor Dave Wilson, a member of the emergency weapons team, headed over to the gorilla building without a weapon. He did not know the guns had been relocated to the annex, but that didn't matter. Without contacting the ERT leader, Wilson unilaterally decided he did not yet need a weapon because, from what he could tell from monitoring the radio, the gorilla was contained in the building and no one knew yet where McClurg was. When he arrived at the gorilla building, no one asked him to get a weapon, and he never offered.

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