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?

He hoped the investigation would be done quickly to help quell what was becoming a witch-hunt within the zoo. (Buickerood, a retired Air Force colonel, refused to talk with the Observer because the paper hurt his feelings in an article it ran six years ago, according to a zoo spokesman. In the article, he described himself as a pragmatist, not a visionary.)

Buickerood contacted the director of the Oklahoma Zoo, where just the previous week a tapir had ripped off the arm of a keeper who had gotten too close to the animal's baby when pushing food into her cage. The director told Buickerood that no matter what he did or didn't do, he'd probably be sued. The director advised him to analyze the response efforts, to be truthful, and to focus on a timeline, which Buickerood requested that the staff construct several days after the event.

While Buickerood understood that his staff had just undergone a traumatic experience, he was not prepared for how emotional and vitriolic the aftermath had become. In a 12-page document he prepared recounting his thoughts, feelings, and actions in the week following the attack, it is clear that the director was troubled by the staff's reaction. At one point, Buickerood was so frustrated, he wrote that he considered quitting.

"Staff really didn't seem interested in listening to me or Ken or Fred or Dr. Gamble. Seemed more interested in finding someone to blame for not instantly getting Jennifer out. Most have never been in a situation like this where they are facing life-and-death situations and time is moving very quickly," he wrote.

Even supervisors who were aware of long-simmering animosity between the staff and zoo leadership felt that LaRue and Kaemmerer were not being treated fairly. In a long memo to Buickerood analyzing the Code Red, Curator Chuck Siegel wrote: "No one wanted to address the issue that the Code Red was caused by someone failing to close the proper shift doors. It was stated several times that this was out of respect for the McClurgs...Like Fred, Ken Kaemmerer had to put on the hat of ERT leader because someone failed disastrously on the job. ERT leaders accept the responsibility because they hope they will be able to save a co-worker, a visitor, a zoo neighbor, and animals from getting injured or killed. They hope they will be able to protect the zoo and city from lawsuit or media scandal. There is no other incentive. At any random moment they are expected to perform flawlessly at a situation they will have never encountered before. Why are so many 'armchair heroes' who weren't even at the zoo so vehemently attacking them personally?"

The one person both the staff and zoo administration assiduously avoided blaming for the escape--at least publicly--was McClurg. This was deliberate, as Buickerood's notes attest. "We are trying to protect McClurg from stories in the media about human error, but it seems as though she is the person who left the door open and allowed Hercules to get out."

Buickerood's immediate problem was how to rebuild the trust between keepers and management. Days after the attack, the Zoo Advisory Committee sent Buickerood a letter saying its members had taken a vote of no confidence in LaRue, Kaemmerer, and Gamble. In response, Buickerood told the trio to take the week off to decompress.

At the same time, Buickerood began holding private meetings with curators and department heads to get their analyses of the situation. He told them that he thought the trio was "receiving a public/mob trial over a hostage situation and that they may never have a day in court. But even if they had their day in court, the staff might still not support them."

Buickerood told LaRue that "the bottle cork had popped and a lot of old baggage was coming out. There wouldn't be this massive outpouring without the undercurrent of problems with his personality and management style," Buickerood recounted in his written record of events. "The organization can't wait long to see if he can change his spots. Fred asked to have until Feb. 1 and I agreed."

Before LaRue left that meeting, he told Buickerood he feared he would become a scapegoat for the incident.

"You might be right," Buickerood replied.
When the week was up, Kaemmerer and Gamble returned to their jobs with nary a slap on the wrist. But Buickerood asked LaRue to resign. The city gave him a six-month contract to work at Samuell Farm, a city park with its own brewing scandal ("Crying fowl," Dallas Observer, March 4).

People close to LaRue believe he was done wrong. Buickerood had been told repeatedly that LaRue's management style was problematic and that he should have done something long before. By waiting until tragedy struck, they say, he made LaRue the villain in an unfortunate incident in which many people made mistakes.

For his part, all LaRue will say is, "This was more than a job to me; it was who I was."

Jennifer McClurg was in the hospital for three weeks. Although she has been in thrice-weekly rehabilitation since, she has not fully regained the use of her right arm and hand. She has not filed suit, and it is not clear that she will, although one of her relatives says she is considering her options. Buickerood promised her parents she would not lose her job, but it is not known if or when she could return.

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