A 21-year-old transient who bypassed a fence, a moat and electric wires to throw himself into a grizzly bear enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo appeared “zombielike” — an affect that likely saved his life — as one of the 500-pound animals sniffed at his shoes, zoo officials said.
Police and zoo officials are trying to find out how Kenneth Herron intruded on Grizzly Gulch, home to 6-year-old sisters Kachina and Kiona, just before the zoo closed at 5 p.m. Saturday. Witnesses have given conflicting reports and Herron has remained uncommunicative, San Francisco police Capt. John Loftus said.
A 4-foot-tall fence, a 15-by-20 moat and electric wire is intended to separate visitors from the animals.
Herron wasn’t injured and was taken to County Jail after undergoing a psychiatric examination at San Francisco General Hospital, Loftus said.
He’s charged with violating park code by entering the bear habitat.
Herron also was booked on a felony warrant from Union City stemming from prior arrests, Loftus said. The warrant involves a July 2006 incident in which Herron threatened his family with a steak knife and a car radio, Union City police Cpl. Bob Kensic said.
Saturday’s incident comes less than two years after Tatiana, a 243-pound Siberian tiger, escaped her enclosure at the zoo and attacked three visitors shortly before closing time. Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, was killed in the Christmas Day 2007 mauling. The emergency response was beset by communication breakdowns and delays.
Zoo officials faced further criticism when it was revealed that the tiger’s moat wall was 4-feet shorter than recommended by the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The tiger grotto reopened last year with higher walls and an electrified fence.
The grizzly bears’ nighttime enclosure, where Herron trespassed, “meets or exceeds” the zoo organization’s standards, said Robert Jenkins, the San Francisco facility’s vice president for institutional advancement. The bears spend most of their days in an adjoining meadow.
The emergency response was swift and flawless, Jenkins said. A zoo shooting team responded immediately after a visitor alerted officials to the situation. A warning shot was fired and the bears retreated to their den, he said. Taraval Police Station officers, who have undergone numerous training exercises since the 2007 incident, also responded within minutes, Jenkins said.
One bear reacted with curiosity when Herron appeared inside the enclosure, Jenkins said.
“It was … ‘What are you? What are you doing here? Why are you in my home?’” he said.
If Herron’s life were in danger, zoo officials would have been forced to shoot the animals, who as orphaned cubs in 2004 were rescued after members of a Montana town planned to euthanize them.
Zoo officials defended the safety of the bears’ enclosures, which opened in 2007, noting that the only way to make the habitats completely human-proof would be to revert to restrictive caging.
“We cannot put our animals in little bubbles,” Jenkins said.