By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
All the workers at the Dallas Zoo know that Hercules has an attitude problem. You can see it in his menacing eyes, which are always alert whenever a human is near, in the way he cautiously patrols the habitat, and in the permanent scowl on his leathery face. Of the 10 lowland gorillas in the Dallas Zoo's Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center--an award-winning exhibit and the zoo's crown jewel--Hercules undoubtedly is the most uptight.
A 34-year-old male that was caught in the wild when he was young, Hercules barely tolerates the four other gorillas in his troop. He frequently fights with the feisty young male gorillas, Jabari and Patrick, on whose limbs he has inflicted nasty gashes. Hercules doesn't socialize any better with Timbo and Maguba, the two females in his troop. He is separated from them at night so he won't hurt them, and he shows no interest in mating with them. In fact, he shows no interest in breeding, period. He tried once many years ago to mate with a gorilla no longer at the zoo. She bit his hand, and that was that.
In contrast, the zoo's other troop lives together in relative harmony. Fubo, the dominant male silverback of this troop, plays well with the other gorillas and has sired three offspring. Last January, he and Aquilina had a baby boy, Jake, whose toes Fubo loved to tickle when Jake was an infant. Jenny and Demba, two other adult females in the troop, dote on Jake like indulgent aunts.
Fubo--"the Joe Friendly of the gorillas," as one zoo worker calls him--likes to clown around with the keepers, engaging them in a game they call "mean gorilla." He lunges at them from behind the mesh window in the gorilla building, then, when they act startled, he puts his hand over his mouth as though he's laughing. Other times, he'll come up to the mesh partition and make faces at the keepers, shaking his head and limply dropping his lower lip to expose his pink gums.
But there's nothing playful about Hercules. When night zookeeper Mike Matthias checks on the gorillas, all 10 invariably wake up, but Hercules is the only one that charges at Matthias from inside his cage. Whenever people are around, especially women, Hercules stands on his feet, bangs his chest, and howls, O-OO-OOO-OO. His eyes follow visitors around the room, suspiciously watching their every move.
"It's like he's frustrated you're there," Matthias says. "The other gorillas are much more relaxed."
Despite the gorillas' relatively docile nature, none of the keepers would ever second-guess how any wild animal might react under stress. And they agree on one thing: Hercules is the animal they would least like to meet face-to-face.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a glorious day, unseasonably warm and sunny, perfect for a family outing. By 9 a.m., cars were piling into the zoo parking lot off the Interstate 35 service road at Marsalis Avenue and visitors were lined up at the gate. The keepers, who already had been at work for two hours, were finishing feeding the animals and cleaning their cages before putting them on exhibit.
Debbie Reid, one of two regular keepers who worked with gorillas, called in sick that morning. The other keeper was off on Saturdays. So the job of feeding and shifting the gorillas from their holding pens to the exhibit area and putting new hay in their pens fell to Jennifer McClurg, a 25-year-old keeper who normally worked with the smaller primates.
A three-year zoo employee and graduate of Texas A&M, McClurg started out in the children's zoo then worked her way up to caring for gorillas. A likable woman with long, silky hair and a self-effacing manner, McClurg three months earlier had been transferred to Primate Place, a refurbished habitat for monkeys in Zoo North, the old, scruffier section of the zoo.
Rod Froelich, a volunteer keeper aide, assisted McClurg this morning. A chiropractor by profession, Froelich had volunteered for several years at the zoo and eventually was assigned to work exclusively with the gorillas, which he adored. Though the job consisted mainly of cleaning up gorilla poop, it was still a prestigious position and a dangerous one.
By 9 a.m., McClurg and Froelich had finished cleaning the outside of the gorilla habitat, a sprawling greensward covered with 45 species of plants indigenous to the gorillas' native Africa. The realistic environment, part of the $32 million Wilds of Africa addition to the zoo, was a welcome alternative to the cold, barren cages that once housed the gorillas. Opened in 1992 with much fanfare, the gorilla habitat won the outstanding achievement in zoo design award that year from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. Even the gorilla's holding pens, where they are kept at night when they come off exhibit, were carefully designed with the animals' welfare in mind. Much larger than the gorillas' former cell-like cages, the holding pens were built with planters and natural material for the floors, instead of concrete, making them easier on the animals' feet. In addition to four bedrooms and two community rooms for the great apes, the building has a series of overhead mesh walkways to give the gorillas additional space and access to all parts of the complex.
According to primate supervisor John Fried, the gorillas seem to enjoy walking above the heads of the keepers, who must guard against being peed on.
What's good for the animals--added space, nature-like habitats--often means more work for the keepers, but few complain, at least not about doing more for the animals. Most keepers see their work as less a job than a labor of love--a chance to bond with exotic creatures, to learn their habits and personalities, to help them thrive as much as possible in captivity.
But that doesn't mean the keepers didn't have other things to complain about. In recent years, a decided rift had grown between zoo labor and management. The keepers, who worked most closely with the animals, felt the administrators and veterinary staff treated them like second-class citizens and dismissed any advice they had on animal care. Several years ago, the non-management staff had formed the Zoo Advisory Committee to make sure upper management and Zoo Director Rich Buickerood heard their voices.
Last summer, the committee conducted a survey showing that morale among the ranks was low. The problem was caused, in part, by understaffing and feelings that the workers were unappreciated, according to a copy of the survey results obtained by the Dallas Observer. Numerous survey respondents seemed to agree that the source of the morale problems was Deputy Director Fred LaRue, a nine-year veteran of the zoo who was described repeatedly as paranoid and irrational, a micromanager prone to angry outbursts. The respondents also criticized senior veterinarian Dr. Tom Alvarado for being imperious and mammal curator Ken Kaemmerer for being too weak to stand up to either of them.
Several workers went so far as to describe the situation as an accident in the making. "Animal operations are compromised on every level...This is a lawsuit waiting to happen," one worker wrote ominously. "I guess nothing will get done until someone is seriously hurt," wrote another.
Working on the front lines of animal care is risky. Shifting animals around when the keepers clean their cages or move them outside is the most dangerous aspect, and in the gorilla habitat, with its myriad rooms, walkways, and doors, a keeper's job is particularly tricky.
Unsecured doors had become a problem at the Dallas Zoo. A little more than a year ago, a keeper forgot to shut the cage in the new chimpanzee building in the Wilds of Africa exhibit, and three chimps escaped. When several zoo employees arrived at the building, the chimps were in a hallway squirting each other with a hose, pushing a broom, and tossing a box of laundry detergent up and down, mimicking their keepers. Using a fire extinguisher, several staff members corralled the chimps into their cage without incident, but it was a close call. Chimps can be vicious.
Earlier this year, Jenny, the oldest gorilla at the zoo, also got loose. A keeper had forgotten to close the keeper access door from the building to the habitat, and Jenny had started to wander back inside after being put on exhibit. When the startled keeper saw her, she sternly admonished Jenny to go back outside--which, much to the keeper's relief, she did.
A stickler for safety, Fred LaRue dealt harshly with such lapses. Known for his explosive temper, he would dress down the offending worker then write a letter of reprimand and place it in the worker's personnel file. One keeper thought a more constructive solution--or at least an additional precaution--would be to put up signs around the habitats reminding keepers to close cage doors. LaRue dismissed the suggestion.
The staff's ominous warnings about safety issues and LaRue's erratic behavior would prove prophetic. Just as the staff had predicted, people soon would get hurt at the zoo. Ironically, the person who zealously--perhaps overzealously--tried to prevent tragedy also would become its victim.
By 9 a.m., McClurg and Froelich had spread fruits, vegetables, and a special chow throughout the habitat and were ready to put the gorillas on exhibit and clean their night quarters in the gorilla building.
The gorilla building is a dank, gray cinder-block affair with access to two separate outdoor habitats, one for Hercules' troop, the other for Fubo's. There are separate sleeping quarters and two community rooms, on the north and south ends, that are linked by a hallway and a room for keepers to work in. The main hallway has exits on the north and south and is divided into three sections by two sets of double doors. The gorillas move around the building through overhead chutes that have doors that can block access to different areas. Windows and mesh screens allow the keepers to coax the animals through the building without coming into direct contact with them.
McClurg began by shifting Fubo's troop from the building into the north habitat. The gorillas were trained to come to a door between the building and the habitat, stand on a scale, then be let outside in exchange for some treat such as raisins. Then McClurg cajoled the two boys, Jabari and Patrick, from their bedrooms into the south community room. Then she moved Hercules into the north community room.
McClurg instructed Froelich to clean the two bedrooms on the south end of the building while she took care of the ones on the north end. Froelich wheeled two trash bins into the main hallway that bisects the building. He opened the hallway's inside double doors and locked the exit doors.
The first thing Froelich did before he began cleaning the bedrooms was to check the access doors to the overhead chutes to make sure the gorillas could not get back into the bedroom area from the community rooms. Depending on the animal, certain chutes are left open at night to give the gorillas more room to roam. When he was certain he was safe, Froelich removed the hay from both bedrooms then began hosing down the floors.
Froelich heard a commotion coming from the south community room. Jabari and Patrick were screaming. The noise lasted for about five seconds. Froelich figured the boys were just roughhousing and went back to washing the bedrooms. When the screaming started again and didn't stop, Froelich grew alarmed and went to investigate. He turned onto the main hallway and on his right saw the boys standing in the community room with their hands clinging to the wire mesh. They were looking at something and screeching loudly, the sounds ricocheting off the bare concrete walls.
Froelich walked about four feet down the hall and stopped. Just 10 feet in front of him in the main hallway stood Hercules, resting on all fours, his long, massive arms spread out before him, his knuckles grazing the floor. Hercules turned and glared at Froelich. He lunged at him, then suddenly stopped. It was a bluff charge.
Unknown to Froelich, Hercules had climbed from the north community room through an open door in the overhead chute that emptied into one of the north bedrooms. At the time, McClurg was in a side hallway near the north bedrooms and spotted Hercules. (See "The keeper's tale," page 32.) She ran and tried to shut the bedroom door before Hercules had access to keeper hallways and the entire building. But Hercules beat her to the door. She turned and tried to run, but Hercules caught her by the leg. He pulled off her boot and bit deeply into her leg, beginning what McClurg says was a 40-minute ordeal. Then he bounded into the main hallway, where he came face-to-face with Froelich.
Froelich froze and instantly figured his options. He quickly scanned the area for McClurg. He could not hear or see her, but Hercules' 340-pound bulk was obscuring the view of the hallway beyond him. Froelich knew he had to save himself. He thought about heading back into the south bedrooms, but ruled it out because he didn't have a key to lock the doors behind him. He thought about closing and locking the hallway doors that stood between him and Hercules, but that would mean walking toward the gorilla, which might have antagonized him. Plus, he didn't think he had enough time to latch the doors, and he had no key to secure them. Another option was to turn on his heels and escape out of the building's south doors. But it was simply too far to run, and there was no way he could beat Hercules in a footrace. Even if he could have outrun him, he might have lured Hercules outside, where that many more people would be vulnerable.
All of this went through his mind in a flash. He took the best option available; he darted into the tech room, a glassed-in keeper work and rest area almost directly to his right. He closed the doors behind him, but they flew right open.
"I immediately felt faint because I thought Herc was coming through the doors," Froelich recalled in a written account of the event for zoo officials. "I almost passed out. I then realized that the right door latches weren't locked, so I re-closed the doors, latching the right door first then locking the left door."
The tech room had glass windows, and Froelich wanted to find someplace safer. He stopped to peer out the windows to see whether he could spot McClurg, then bolted into an all-brick bathroom off the tech room. On the way he grabbed a two-way radio.
Once safely inside the bathroom, Froelich tried to reach McClurg on her radio. When he got no response, he called mammal supervisor Linda King. "An animal's loose in the gorilla building!" Froelich yelled. After determining which animal was loose and that McClurg's whereabouts were unknown, King called the front office and issued a Code Red, which signifies a life-threatening danger from an escaped animal.
For the next 15 to 25 terrifying minutes, depending on whose account you believe, Froelich remained locked in the bathroom, McClurg fought for her life, and the zoo's top brass tried to figure out how to rescue them both and subdue Hercules.
Froelich could not see anything, but he could hear objects being thrown about the building. And he could hear repeated, ear-piercing screams coming from Jennifer McClurg.
When a Code Red is issued at the zoo, well-defined procedures are supposed to be followed, as outlined in the zoo's emergency guidelines. Several high-ranking employees at the zoo are designated emergency response leaders, and the senior one of them on duty when a crisis occurs immediately takes charge. Everyone around the zoo has an assigned role or area of responsibility in an emergency. Supervisors are supposed to periodically review these procedures with staff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.