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 results of the USDA investigation are still not in, but the agency strongly urged the zoo to consider having two keepers working in sight of each other at all times when shifting and cleaning the cages of the more dangerous animals. But zoo staff and administrators saw the proposal as impractical because of staff shortages. The zoo, however, has stopped using volunteers in these roles.

The park department inquiry, which Buickerood hoped would be conducted quickly, is still dragging on four months after the attack. Assistant Park Director Carol Bray has spent one day a week meeting with zoo staff and conducting in-depth interviews with everyone who was involved in the incident.

In the most recent media story, the zoo publicly blamed McClurg for allowing Hercules to escape, but the stories failed to mention the zoo's own errors in handling the rescue efforts. City officials pointed out that they still hadn't heard McClurg's version of events, as if to imply she was somehow avoiding them. In fact, no one had bothered to contact her. After the story came out, McClurg called Bray and gave her a three-and-a-half-hour interview. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Zoo staff members, working in conjunction with the police department, have been rewriting the emergency procedures manual, expanding and better preparing the emergency weapons team, and better equipping zoo personnel for emergencies. They have ordered more guns, but have yet to place them around the zoo. They have looked into possibly outfitting keepers with pepper spray and personal alarm buttons, but so far nothing has materialized.

A long-anticipated new tiger exhibit is scheduled to open in Zoo North in May. A much-needed new Children's Zoo will be built within the year. By all accounts, this should be a good time for the Dallas Zoo, which has seen few major initiatives since the Wilds of Africa opened almost a decade ago. But a pall lingers over the place.

Staffers are still reeling from the trauma. They want to know whether any lessons were really learned. Just last month, a new keeper, still on probation, was working in the hospital. She and another keeper were cleaning adjoining tiger cages. The woman put the tiger back in its cage without realizing the other keeper was in an adjacent cage. But before the tiger could get to him, the keeper reached in and shut the door between the two cages just in time.

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