Zoo door that killed young gorilla, closing procedures criticized

AP Photo/San Francisco Zoo

AP Photo/San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo needs to overhaul both its practices and equipment in order to avoid a repeat of the Nov. 7 death of its youngest gorilla, animal advocates say.

Sixteen-month-old Kabibe, one of the zoo's western lowland gorillas, was crushed to death when she darted underneath a closing hydraulic door after the zoo had shut for the day.

A single zookeeper was on duty at the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve at the time, and the hydraulic door had no emergency shutoff switch to stop it from closing when obstructed, similar to what is in place for a common garage door.

Both of those issues were factors in the accident, said Dr. Elliot Katz of In Defense of Animals, a longtime critic of the zoo, who added that they must not be repeated in order to avoid further tragedy.

“If a zoo doesn't have the resources or sense to update and monitor their hydraulic doors, they should not be used,” he said in a statement Monday.

The San Francisco Zoo has declined interview requests following Kabibe's death, but has suggested that zookeeper error is at fault.

Zookeepers are required to keep one hand on an emergency stop button when operating the doors, according to a photo of a warning notice posted at the gorilla enclosure that was circulated by zoo officials after the death.

Additionally, “… it appears the keeper did not follow the protocol,” zoo director Tanya Peterson wrote in an e-mail to Recreation and Park Department officials.

The zookeeper who witnessed Kabibe's death was working alone at the time.

In a handwritten statement, the zookeeper said that Kabibe was seen being brought into the enclosure in the arms of Bawang, her grandmother. The next time Kabibe was seen, she was being pinned by the door, the zookeeper wrote.

Two zookeepers are now assigned to preserve closing duties.

However, zookeepers had pushed for extra help when working with the zoo's gorillas and chimpanzees as early as a year ago. They had also warned zoo management about problems gorillas had with the hydraulic doors that killed Kabibe.

In 2010, zookeepers observed that gorilla Hasani – who, at that time, was roughly the same age as Kabibe – “does not understand closing doors,” according to a document obtained by The San Francisco Examiner. They had recommended sending young gorillas through “far off-electric doors… as little as possible.”

And in November 2013, zookeepers had advocated for an extra staff member – an “apekeeper” – to assist when putting the chimpanzees and gorillas in their nighttime enclosures. It's not clear why the apekeeper was not instituted despite pleas from the staff.

Kabibe's death is under investigation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the zoo, as well as by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The zoo has also hired former AZA director Dr. Terry Maple to conduct his own inquiry. Maple did not respond to voicemails seeking comment on Monday.

However, in an e-mail last week obtained by The Examiner, Maple corroborated Katz's call and also seemed to vindicate zookeepers' pleas.

The zoo's gorilla enclosure has “obstructions… that make it difficult for one operator to account for all of the gorillas when the doors are about to close,” Maple wrote.

In order for gorillas to be safe, there needs to be “at least two people working the system,” he wrote.

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