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THE NATION

Dallas Gorilla's Escape, Shooting Raise Questions

March 20, 2004|From Associated Press

DALLAS — The scene at the Wilds of Africa exhibit was wilder than anything most zookeepers have witnessed in the jungle: A 340-pound gorilla breaks out of its enclosure and goes on a 40-minute rampage through a forest, snatching up a toddler with his teeth and attacking three other people before being shot to death by officers.

Federal regulators are investigating the Dallas Zoo over Thursday's escape, zoo officials are trying to figure out how the gorilla managed to break out, and animal welfare advocates are questioning whether officers had to kill the beast.

"Clearly, this is a zoo's worst nightmare," said Dan Wharton, director of the Central Park Zoo in New York City and chairman of the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn.'s Gorilla Species Survival Plan.

The 13-year-old Jabari broke out of the enclosure as several families were touring the jungle exhibit Thursday afternoon. After escaping, the gorilla darted in and out of the exhibit's thick bamboo and trees and attacked two women and two children.

The injured included a mother and her toddler son. Rivers Noah, 3, was in fair condition Friday at Children's Medical Center with bites to his head and chest. His mother, Keisha Heard, 26, was bitten on the legs.

"I was like, 'This is not happening; this is so unreal,' because he just came out of nowhere," Heard said Friday on NBC's "Today" show.

Heard was treated and released along with a woman who suffered arm injuries. Another child was treated at the scene.

Police evacuated an estimated 300 people from the zoo compound, while some guests hid inside a restaurant and in the monorail surrounding the Wilds of Africa exhibit.

Exactly how the gorilla got loose was unclear. Some youths had reportedly teased Jabari shortly before he escaped.

Zoo employees searched Friday for broken tree limbs, footprints, fur -- anything that could provide a clue to how Jabari escaped. They found nothing.

"We're just beginning to wonder whether this is some kind of superhuman feat of physical prowess," said Rich Buickerood, director of the Dallas Zoo.

Buickerood believes the gorilla somehow managed to scale the enclosure's 15-foot concave wall, but experts doubt that could have happened.

"Virtually anybody who's worked with great apes has not been able to compute any way that a gorilla could get up a 15-foot wall," Wharton said. "When you boil it all down, at some level, one has to assume human error."

Federal regulators said their investigation will look at whether the zoo was in full compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, but they would not provide specifics on possible violations.

Darby Holladay, a spokesman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the zoo could face fines or have its license suspended or revoked if it is found out of compliance.

Police are conducting an internal investigation, but they said officers were forced to shoot the charging gorilla after it came within 15 feet of them.

Dieter Steklis, chief scientist and vice president for the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, said police could have tried to contain the gorilla with nonfatal techniques, including using rubber bullets or cornering it with a wall of 15 to 20 people, preferably keepers the animal recognized.

"It sounds like, somehow, there was a bit too much panic on hand and too little judgment of the gorilla's behavior," said Steklis.

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