Emails show SF zookeepers pushed for extra help, warned of hazards before gorilla death

Courtesy of the San Francisco ZooSan Francisco Zoo officials say the zoo's six surviving gorillas

More than a year before a closing hydraulic door fatally crushed a 16-month-old gorilla, zookeepers pushed for extra staff to monitor the San Francisco Zoo’s youngest gorilla and warned that young gorillas had trouble understanding the zoo’s electric doors, documents show.

National agencies and an investigator hired by the zoo are trying to piece together what happened Nov. 7 when Kabibe, a western lowland gorilla who was born at the zoo in July 2013, somehow ended up pinned underneath one of the doors to the gorillas’ nighttime enclosure at closing time.

Initial information released by the zoo shows that the zookeeper “appeared” to not follow protocol by keeping a hand on an emergency stop button to the doors as they closed.

Emails and documents obtained by The San Francisco Examiner on Friday show that gorilla keepers warned that young gorillas did not understand closing doors, and that after Kabibe was introduced to the group, workers pushed for a third zookeeper who was never hired.

The zoo was in negotiations with the Teamsters union, which represents the zookeepers, to institute a “buddy system” when dealing with “code red” animals, according to documents. A “code red” animal is an animal with the ability to kill a human, such as a bear, tiger or gorilla.

“The only long term, safe, and feasible option I can think of is adding another “Ape Keeper” to our staff who will assist both Chimps and Gorillas,” an unidentified zookeeper wrote in an email that included a detailed proposal and schedule for the “ape keeper.”

Zookeepers proposed having the “ape keeper” assist with the process of herding the gorillas into their secured quarters for the night.

“This third person is necessary due to the increased workload from the introduction of an infant gorilla to the group and the preparation needed for the chimpanzee move,” according to the proposal.

A zoo spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Further, problems with the electric doors specific to young gorillas like Kabibe were identified as early as 2010.

Hasani, another member of the gorilla herd – who at that time was roughly the same age as Kabibe when she died – “does not understand closing doors,” a zookeeper wrote in a Jan. 28, 2010 memo obtained by The San Francisco Examiner. “Avoid shifting Hasani into far-off electric doors (which are hard to see gorillas through) as much as possible.”

The zoo has hired Dr. Terry Maple, a renowned zoo expert and former head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to investigate Kabibe’s death. The association will also conduct its own inquiry.

Maple told other media this week that the gorilla enclosure ought to be redesigned, in part because of wire mesh that reduces visibility for the zookeepers.

After the fatal mauling of a zoo guest by a tiger who escaped from her enclosure on Christmas Day 2007, the zoo has enjoyed soaring revenue and visitor numbers.

The zoo also passed its last two accreditation inspections, from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2010, and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January of this year.

Though the association review found “several large holes in the wall” near keeper access in chimpanzee holding, no issue with the gorilla enclosure was identified by either agency, according to records.

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