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

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

Zoo hires prominent animal psychologist to investigate gorilla death

In the wake of the tragic death of its youngest gorilla Friday, the San Francisco Zoo is turning to a familiar face in its search for answers.

The zoo announced Monday that it has hired Dr. Terry L. Maple, an animal psychologist and prominent nationwide expert who redesigned gorilla enclosures at other zoos, to investigate the death of 16-month-old western lowland gorilla Kabibe.

Kabibe, who was born at the zoo in July 2013, was crushed to death as she “unexpectedly darted under a closing hydraulic door” as it shut at the end of the zoo's day on Friday, according to zoo officials.

Maple, a former zoo director on the East Coast who has been retained by other cities to improve floundering or inhumane zoos, is a graduate of UC Davis and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University.

He is also well-known and respected at the zoo, which hired him in 2012 to redesign animal enclosures with a focus on the animals' “psychological wellness.”

During Maple's stint as the Zoo's “professor-in-residence,” some wire mesh elements of the Zoo's gorilla enclosure were removed in favor of glass, zoo officials said, though no major overhaul of the enclosure has happened for some time.

The San Francisco Zoo describes its Jones Family Gorilla Preserve as “one of the largest and most exceptional” gorilla enclosures in the United States.

Zoo officials said Monday that the door that crushed Kabibe was working properly, but it was not known if the door was equipped with an automatic shutoff sensor of the kind seen on common garage door openers.

Maple declined an interview with the San Francisco Examiner on Monday, though he did say that he would arrive in the Bay Area over the weekend to begin his investigation.

The zoo's six surviving gorillas are meanwhile “processing the loss,” zoo officials said.

The gorillas, including Kabibe's grandmother, 34-year old Bawang, to whom she was closest, were shown Kabibe's corpse and allowed to touch and examine it “as is customary with a primate death,” the zoo said in a statement.

The zoo has been on a steady upswing following its darkest days after the fatal mauling of a 17-year old boy by an escaped tiger on Christmas Day 2007.

Attendance plummeted, the zoo lost $2 million, and there was talk that the aging facility at the end of Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset district might close.

Since then, zoo attendance has increased to 800,000 visitors a year, and several facilities, including a children's playground, were remodeled at the Works Progress Administration-era zoo.

The San Francisco Zoological Society, which took over operation of the zoo from The City in 1993, recorded a $1.1 million profit during 2013, according to its most recent tax documents, and has cash reserves of close to $14 million.

Bay Area NewsKabibeSan Francisco zooSan Francisco Zoological Society

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