The keeper's tale

On March 2, three months after zookeeper Jennifer McClurg was attacked and repeatedly bitten by a gorilla at the Dallas Zoo, she sat down with park department officials to tell them what she remembered of her terrifying 40-minute ordeal and explain how the animal got loose. The Dallas Observer obtained a transcript of the three-and-a-half-hour interview, in which McClurg expressed frustration with zoo officials who did not follow their own rescue procedures.

McClurg was filling in that morning for the regular gorilla keeper, who had called in sick. Although McClurg had worked in the gorilla building before, she'd recently taken on a new assignment--caring for smaller primates. She hadn't worked with the gorillas in about three months, and during that time the animals' sleeping arrangements had changed--unbeknownst to McClurg. A door that was once kept closed was now routinely left open.

The 10 lowland gorillas at the zoo live in two troops. The dominant male Hercules, two young boys, and two female gorillas sleep on the south side of the building; Fubo and his troop sleep in the north bedrooms and community room. All the rooms are connected by overhead chutes, which have doors that can separate the animals at night.

Hercules and the two young male gorillas are separated from the two females at night by a chute door. When McClurg worked the gorilla building, Fubo's troop also was separated at night. Fubo and Angelina and their baby, Jake, slept in the north bedrooms, and two older females slept in the north community room. But as the older females became accustomed to baby Jake, this whole troop began having access to each other all night through a door McClurg thought was always closed.

McClurg told investigators she did not notice that door was open when she moved Hercules into the north community room to give him some food.

"I never opened that door. I never touched that door that day. I mean, it must have been opened from the night before, because I never moved the lever to open or close that door," she told zoo officials.

This door gave Hercules access to the north bedrooms, which McClurg was cleaning, as well as the rest of the building.

"I went to open the north keeper doors [which open into the north bedrooms]. And I went...to go get some tools to clean those bedrooms. As I came out into the keeper hallway, I looked up in the chute, and I saw Hercules there, and I knew he shouldn't be there. So I ran back to the [keeper] doors and tried to shut them, but they are big and heavy, and you have to get your arm around the door to close it. There is no handle on it. He grabbed the door, kind of got it open, and that's when he attacked me. He bit me in the left leg. He bit me a few times in the left leg and then came up and bit me in the right leg."

She screamed for Rod Froelich, the volunteer who was cleaning the south bedrooms in the gorilla building. Hercules grabbed her arm and pulled her into the keeper hallway, where he flung her against a door. He looked angry and agitated, and McClurg tried to lay still, curled up in a ball with her arms over her neck and face. She was trying to watch Hercules through her arms without letting him know, because gorillas--especially Hercules--are threatened by direct eye contact.

Every few minutes Hercules would kick, drag, and sling her against the wall. Then he would beat on his chest. After 10 minutes, McClurg says, she heard a Code Red called, alerting the entire zoo that there was danger from an escaped animal. A few moments later, curled up on the floor in the gorilla building hallway, she could hear people at the north entrance door to the gorilla building.

"And for some reason, I don't know why they did it, but they began beating on that door...There are people outside there that know Hercules, and he doesn't like noise, and that really angers him. I knew as soon as they began beating on that door that he was going to attack me...So he came over and, when they were beating on the doors, got me straight up and bit me on both arms, and on my foot and my side...[A]fter he bit me, he dropped me and ran off and did his stance; he never really got more than five feet away from me...I decided to stay still and keep my head covered and do the best I could, and hope that they were going to get in there at some point and get me.

"I was lying there in this pool of blood. I knew something was wrong with my left eye...I'm starting to feel really weak like I couldn't move. That's when I started thinking, maybe I'm not going to get out of here. And so I started thinking all these things to myself. I want to have kids. I want to have a family. I might not get out of here."

Hercules heard a noise on the south end of the building. McClurg thought someone was finally coming in to take a shot at the gorilla and attempt to rescue her. "I don't know why they didn't do that," she says.

Zoo personnel were in fact locking interior doors on the other end of the hallway to confine Hercules in a smaller space. Hercules walked away from McClurg for a moment to investigate the noise. This was her last chance, McClurg remembered thinking. She got up and ran the other way, out the north entrance doors. The veterinarian on duty, Dr. Kathryn Gamble, came by and told her she looked fine and left to take care of Hercules. McClurg lost consciousness in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The next thing she remembers is lying in the emergency room with a doctor standing over her, saying, "Oh, my God."

McClurg's left eyelid was nearly torn off, and she was bleeding profusely from deep puncture wounds in her side, arms, legs, and heel.

"I've learned a lot from this issue. You can't have one person with 10 gorillas, or doors that don't work and say OK...[In an emergency], they are supposed to bring the necessary tools over, which would be guns, the dart guns, the veterinarian...The police are supposed to take over when there is a person in danger, and it's all in the code book. That's what frustrates me. If we have a plan, why don't we stick to it and do it?...We are working with wild animals, but if we got a plan, that plan doesn't do us any good if we are not going to initiate it. And to this day, I don't understand why...they were worried about Hercules more than they were worried about getting me out of there."

McClurg suffered 33 puncture wounds and was hospitalized for nearly a month. The wounds on her legs and heel are still numb, but she can walk. She undergoes physical therapy three times a week in Dallas, but does not know whether she will ever regain the use of her right arm.

--Ann Zimmerman

To hear audio excerpts from Jennifer McClurg's interview with the investigators, visit www.dallasobserver.com.

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Ann Zimmerman