"I think people get a false sense of security . . . . Maybe these kids watched too much 'Gentle Ben.' That's a real danger. That's why we have people feeding bears in Yellowstone and elsewhere."
That sad speculation came Wednesday from Jean Hromadka, president of the American Assn. of Zoo Keepers and an elephant keeper at the San Diego Wild Animal Park when she was asked about the tragedy at Brooklyn's Prospect Park the night before.
On Tuesday, 11-year-old Juan Perez of Brooklyn was killed by two polar bears after he and two friends entered the bear enclosure after the zoo closed. Zoo officials there said the area is surrounded by a tall, barred fence, but that would not prevent someone from getting into the bear pit. Two companions who accompanied Perez into the compound escaped without injury and police shot the bears to death.
Hromadka and zoo officials elsewhere expressed the fear that the public sometimes doesn't comprehend the dangers posed by wild animals. But, in general, they said zoos take precautions to guard against such attitudes.
"I don't understand why the bears were out," Hromadka said of the Prospect Park tragedy. "Usually most zoos bring their bears in at night, especially polar bears. I've not been at a zoo where they leave the bears out at night. Maybe they got out. Polar bears are notorious for killing people. If you go in with them you're not going to come back out."
Gary Zarr, a spokesman for the New York Department of Parks and Recreation, responded that he had not heard questions concerning why the bears were not locked up at night. But an investigation is in progress, he said. Although the bears were surrounded by two four-foot-high fences, an island and a moat, he added, "It is an outdated zoo. But we've never had any problem. For the last 50 years there's never been any incident like this. . . . We did not feel bears were any danger to the public. Nothing from our experience indicated that a tragedy like this could occur."
L.A. Zoo's Practices
At the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, the two polar bears and other carnivores are locked up at night behind concrete and steel barriers in areas called "bedrooms" that keep the animals from sight. During the day, the bears are separated from the public in a pit surrounded by a five-foot-high fence, five feet of land, a 15-foot moat and a pool.
"We have (the bedrooms) for control," said zoo director Dr. Warren Thomas. It's done not only to keep the public safe from the animals, but to keep the animals safe from various threats such as coyotes or earthquakes. The zoo also has a nighttime security crew.
"But let me add," he said, "that it's virtually impossible to stop everyone from an injury or fatality if they're bent on doing it."
In October of 1980, a man was mauled to death at the zoo one afternoon after he jumped or fell into an area containing three rare Asian lions.
Much as Hromadka had commented, Thomas noted that when a wild animal is behind bars at a zoo it may seem like a cute, cuddly creature. "Let's say that familiarity breeds contempt," he said. "People go to zoos and see these wonderful animals across a moat and it doesn't register that what they're looking at is the end product of millions of years of evolution to survive."
Average 900 Pounds
Polar bears are one of the biggest of the species, he added (they grow to an average 900 pounds) and are "certainly one of the most aggressive. That figures, considering what environment it comes from. A polar bear inherits this innate drive to pursue a moving target. If this bear was in the wild it wouldn't miss many opportunities to get food. If the kid (in New York) had not moved, who's to say how the bear would have reacted? But when he did move, it was like an automatic triggering device."
At the San Diego Zoo, the polar bears and other carnivorous animals are kept locked up in similar bedrooms at night, out of sight from the public, except for times when the animals become stubborn and refuse to go in. Carmi Perry, curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo, said those instances are unpredictable but occur "no more than two or three times a year."
"To be honest," he said, "(an incident like the one in New York) could happen to any zoo at any place. What happened appears to be a definite effort to get into the bear unit, and there's nothing you can do to prevent that. I think basic human nature is to get as close as you can. Zoo animals are actually more dangerous than wild animals because they are accustomed to humans. If you ran into an animal in the wild, its first reaction would be to avoid you. But animals in captivity have no fear of humans. Children have an appeal to carnivores because of their size and their rapid, jerky motions. The noises they make are shrill. Those things combined equate to what a prey animal would look like to a carnivore."