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?

The other person with a weapon who should have been at the site was the Dallas police officer assigned to patrol the zoo. If a human life is in danger at the zoo, it's his job to protect it. Brian Barnes was the officer on duty that Saturday. While zoo personnel mobilized for the Code Red, he was oblivious. Had he been listening to the zoo radio, he would have known about the code himself. Instead, he was sitting in his patrol car at the zoo's entrance listening to the police dispatch radio. It was only after zoo personnel called an ambulance that a police dispatcher asked Barnes whether he knew what was going on.

According to the guidelines, the ERT duty officer is supposed to have the front office locate the police officer. Kaemmerer did not do this. After the incident, Barnes told several people that he believed zoo administrators purposely didn't contact him because they knew he would have killed the gorilla to protect McClurg.

Precious minutes were ticking away as Kaemmerer and LaRue tried to assess the situation, which was growing grimmer by the second. Two employees on ladders at the north end of the building reported the grisly scene as it unfolded.

Hercules was dragging McClurg up and down the main hallway. The workers on the north end knocked on the glass windows to try to distract the gorilla, but it just made him more agitated. At one point, he sunk his four-inch teeth into McClurg's right forearm.

"Please, someone give us permission to call the paramedics," primate keeper Marti Jenkins pleaded over the radio.

LaRue finally gave Kaemmerer the go-ahead, but admonished him to use a channel he mistakenly thought couldn't be monitored by outsiders. "We don't want the media circus to begin," he said.

Several times McClurg yelled for someone to get her out. Unarmed and unsure of what to do, Kaemmerer and LaRue huddled outside the gorilla building, waiting for the vet to arrive so they could devise a game plan. Even if the vet had arrived promptly, pinning all their hopes on her ability to tranquilize the animal before McClurg was injured further was misguided. Even in the best of circumstances, it can take five to 10 minutes for the sedative to begin working in an animal whose adrenaline is pumping. And this was not the best of circumstances.

As they listened to McClurg scream, Kaemmerer and LaRue realized they had to do something. They decided they needed to get inside the building--not to get McClurg out, but to secure the inside main hallway doors so they could get a closer look at the situation.

When several employees finally rounded up some fire extinguishers, Kaemmerer, LaRue, and Jason Sauceda, a hoof-stock keeper, rushed into the building and threw the trash bins against the interior hallway doors. In his haste, Kaemmerer had left his keys in the outside door and yelled for someone to get them. He locked the inside doors, but feared Hercules could still get through them. He called for something to barricade them.

As someone brought a shovel to put through the door handles and someone ran to get a chain and padlock, Sauceda watched in horror as Hercules picked McClurg up like a rag doll and sank his teeth into her side. Then he hurled her against the north inside hallway doors.

Perhaps it was the commotion of barricading the doors that momentarily distracted Hercules. For a moment, he left McClurg alone as he strode to the south doors. McClurg made a break for it. She rushed to the first set of interior doors at the hallway's north end and unlatched them. Then, with what little strength she had left, she pounded on the outside doors for someone to let her out.

Bloodied and limping, her eye swollen and hair caked with blood and feces, McClurg kept moving until she was a safe distance from the building, then collapsed on the ground. She told her colleagues she needed blood.

"Where are the paramedics?" she asked repeatedly as one of her colleagues tried to stop her bleeding with some small bandages from a woefully inadequate first-aid kit.

As McClurg sat on the ground, the vet finally showed up and stopped briefly to take her pulse and ask someone to retrieve clean towels.

Almost five minutes after McClurg had freed herself, an ambulance finally arrived and rushed her to the hospital. She underwent several hours of surgery. Hercules had almost bitten off one of her eyelids, severed an artery in her arm, almost chewed off one of her heels, and bit so deeply into her side that doctors feared it would become septic.

As doctors at nearby Methodist Hospital attempted to save McClurg's life, a phalanx of zoo administrators were at the gorilla building still trying to subdue Hercules. Worried he could break through some of the building's windows that were not safety glass, Wilson finally asked whether he should retrieve a rifle, which he did.

Gamble set about to find the best angle to shoot Hercules with a tranquilizer gun, only to discover that none of the windows had portals for shooting. The windows on the hallway doors were plastic and required a drill to be pierced, but the maintenance crew was off grounds and wouldn't be back for 30 minutes. Someone found a drill and made a hole in the window. The first dart fell far short of Hercules, who was near the north end of the building. Then the dart gun twice misfired, and another gun was brought to the vet. As a primate keeper sang songs to lure Hercules closer to the south doors, the vet finally shot a dart into his arm. Within 10 minutes, he was safely asleep.

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