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 attack left the zoo staff upset and angry. They were worried about McClurg, whose injuries were much more serious than initially reported in the press. And they were furious with zoo management, who they believed did not do nearly enough to rescue her. The keepers and keeper aides drew a single, distressing message from the events of that Saturday morning: Zoo management cared more about the life of an animal than about that of a human being.

Nothing that was done or said in the following days made anyone feel any better. To the contrary, emotions escalated.

On Sunday, November 29, the day after the attack, a badly shaken Fred LaRue and Ken Kaemmerer met with senior staff members to explain their actions. They told them they had done the best they could. LaRue claimed that he, Kaemmerer, and Sauceda were planning to enter the building and rescue McClurg just as she got out herself. Many people in attendance told LaRue they didn't believe him. Tempers flared.

After the meeting, Chuck Siegel, curator of bird keepers, children zookeepers, and night keepers, suggested to LaRue that the staff involved in Saturday's incident could use some crisis counseling. LaRue agreed and had Siegel contact the city's Department of Human Services. They scheduled a counselor for Tuesday, two days later.

The crisis intervention, originally scheduled for 40 people, was changed to a meeting for all employees. The focus quickly shifted from relaxation exercises to a modern-day inquisition in which LaRue, Kaemmerer, and Gamble were made to explain their actions during the rescue attempt. Why didn't they call for an ambulance immediately? Why weren't weapons brought to the scene right away? What took the vet so long to respond?

Almost in tears, LaRue and Kaemmerer fielded questions from their hostile staff as best they could. Above all, the keeper staff demanded to know why they left McClurg in there to fend for herself. The pair tried to explain that it was like dealing with a hostage situation and that any action they took could have created a dangerous reaction. They were not sure where Hercules or McClurg was at any one time. They weren't sure until almost the end whether--and how badly--she was injured. Any sudden move on their part, they said, could have caused Hercules to kill her.

Many of the keeper staff insisted that the right course of action would have been to storm the building right away and kill the gorilla if necessary to free McClurg. To this day, LaRue doesn't think rushing in with guns blazing would have been the right thing to do. In a statement he wrote after the incident, he explained that the building "is simply too confining and full of solid concrete and steel structures and built in such a way that people at the other end would also be at risk. Ricochets hitting other people (and Jennifer) would also always be a serious concern."

LaRue's argument doesn't wash with much of the staff. What angers them is that the people in charge couldn't have rescued her if they wanted to because they weren't properly prepared. They didn't even consider having weapons available. A few months later, an incident at a Utah zoo would further undermine LaRue's argument. In early March, three chimpanzees got loose and viciously attacked a keeper, biting off his nose and several of his fingers. Twelve zoo employees with shotguns converged on the chimp building and shot two of the three monkeys.

Gamble denied having made a serious error in judgment. The only mistake LaRue and Kaemmerer admitted to was not calling the ambulance sooner. "I do not believe it was more than a few minutes for the ambulance to arrive, but it was time she had to wait, and I will regret it for the rest of my life," LaRue would later write.

LaRue's admission was met with even more hostility, mostly from people who weren't even at the zoo when the incident happened. "Finally, somebody is admitting they made a mistake," yelled primate supervisor John Fried, who was off the day of the accident. "Someone has to take the blame for this problem, because no one is doing that."

Several zoo administrators thought it ironic that Fried was so insistent on placing blame, when in fact all of the security lapses in the last year and a half had happened in his area.

But Fried had worked the crowd into a frenzy. "Who will save us the next time?" an angry keeper yelled.

Zoo Director Rich Buickerood had his hands full. In the frantic, emotionally charged days after the accident, he was worried about dozens of issues. He feared that McClurg, and possibly Froelich, would sue the city--not an irrational fear, considering that McClurg's parents were accusing the zoo of doing nothing to rescue their daughter. He fretted about the media sensationalizing the story and further upsetting the McClurgs, who had flown in from California to be by their daughter's side. Shortly after the attack, he learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was going to investigate the incident. And to help ameliorate the growing tension within his own ranks, he asked the Dallas Park and Recreation Department to conduct an independent inquiry into the attack and the subsequent flawed rescue efforts.

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