Little Joe's keepers
NEVER underestimate a gorilla, especially a teenage gorilla. Some members of the species are capable of using sign language to communicate with humans. Others can make quick work of supposedly fool-proof security systems, as evidenced Sunday night by the escape of Little Joe from the Franklin Park Zoo.
The image of a 300-pound gorilla roaming free in a public park and taking a quick detour onto busy Seaver Street in Dorchester is not only cause for knee-slapping and chest thumping. Two people, including a toddler, were injured by the animal. Zoo officials often speak of their dual goals of conservation and education. But their first responsibility should be the safety of their patrons. And Little Joe was a known escape artist, having broken free for the first time in August. He has been placed indefinitely in a secure area.
Unpredictability goes with the territory. But Zoo New England, which operates the Franklin Park and Stoneham zoos, seems to have more than its share of incidents. In 1997 a popular gorilla named Kubie went into cardiac arrest after being anesthetized. In March 2001 a lion died, also while under anesthesia for a routine physical. Later that year, a male lion crushed the windpipe of a lioness, resulting in her death, during an "animal introduction" gone awry.
Come spring the Franklin Park Zoo is scheduled to undergo a through accreditation review, safety procedures included, by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. But that's too long to wait for answers. Boston police officers, including a tactical team member and a drug detective, were needed to fire the zoo's tranquilizer guns that immobilized Little Joe and allowed for his safe return. That raises serious questions about the readiness of the zoo staff to respond to animal escapes and other emergencies.
Any investigation must also focus on the width of the barrier separating the gorillas from the public. In Boston, a 12-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep moat was deemed sufficient to protect the public. But in 2001, an adolescent gorilla in the Pittsburgh Zoo managed to escape over a 16-foot-wide, 16-foot-deep configuration, albeit with the aid of a bamboo stem that leaned toward the moat.
Staffing questions remain. Franklin Park has been operating without a curator of mammals for at least a year, according to the Zoo Association. And some mystery still surrounds the 2001 dismissal of the innovative zoo director Brian Rutledge.
The US Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos and enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, is in the process of determining whether an investigation is warranted, according to spokesman Jim Rogers. What are they waiting for? A lion on a rampage through Egleston Square?
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