MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTOIn the wake of a gorilla death in early November

SF Zoo to overhaul gorilla enclosure practices in wake of death

The San Francisco Zoo will overhaul its practices for handling gorillas to avoid a repeat of the accident that killed its youngest gorilla earlier this month, the zoo announced late Tuesday.

The zoo is taking immediate action on recommendations from Dr. Terry Maple, a former head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and a renowned national zoo expert.

Maple was hired to find out what went wrong Nov. 7 when a closing hydraulic-powered door fatally crushed Kabibe, a western lowland gorilla, at the zoo’s Jones Family Gorilla Preserve.

Emails from zoo officials in the wake of the accident placed blame on the lone zookeeper on duty at the time. The zookeeper was responsible for bringing the seven-member gorilla troop inside to its nighttime enclosure and, while doing that, also keeping one hand on an emergency stop button for the door.

That zookeeper was the only witness to the accident, which happened at end of the zoo’s public hours.

Two zookeepers are now on duty for the closing routine, a change made Nov. 8.

The zoo said it will also make the following changes:

-Retrofit the gorilla enclosure’s doors so they fully close only when a zookeeper keeps continuous pressure on a button;

-Issue radio headsets to zookeepers to improve communication;

-Hire a specialist to train the gorillas to stay calm and not become “unruly” when the doors are in use;

-Install a backup generator to make sure the gorilla enclosure has power in case of an outage;

-Improve inspections and maintenance of the gorilla enclosure, including its doors;

-And share the new training protocol and story of Kabibe as a cautionary tale to other zoos.

Mechanical failure was ruled out as a cause of the accident.

The additional zookeeper is a change the San Francisco Zoo’s workers requested over a year ago specifically to keep an eye on Kabibe, who had a tendency – common to other young gorillas at the zoo – to unexpectedly dart underneath the closing doors, according to zoo documents and emails.

The zoo has yet to explain why it took until Kabibe’s death to add the second zookeeper.

“Zoo animals and zoo keepers are safest when working in pairs,” Maple wrote in his report.

Maple did not interview the lone zookeeper on duty at the time of the accident, according to the report.

In a statement Tuesday night, zoo executive director Tanya Peterson said Maple’s report “allows us to move forward and apply practical solutions to ensure the future of this precious gorilla family and their critically endangered species.”

Both the zoo and Maple are declining interview requests from media.

Other incidents in recent years with the gorilla enclosure included the animals getting their hands caught in the closing doors, but Kabibe’s death was the first “major incident” involving gorillas at the zoo in 30 years, zoo officials said in a statement.

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