Zoos are incredible places to visit both educationally and for leisure, a long-standing popular day out for all. Showcasing rare, exotic animals – some big, some small – and each with unique behaviour and temperaments, they are a real treat for visitors. But it’s also a challenge for Keepers and zoo managers to provide the best environment for the animals, and protect them and the paying public – a busy park full of different species with unique requirements and thousands of excitable visitors.
A frequent question from interested visitors, prompted often by stories in the news and social media is “what happens if a lion/tiger/bear/elephant escapes?”. It is rare, but sometimes with the best intentions, facilities and training, animals do escape from zoos and safari parks – and it can happen to the best of them. What’s important is how we plan for these rare events and what we do to resolve them.
Just this year, a plucky (and not very dangerous!) capybara made a successful bid for freedom at popular Toronto Zoo and hid out for 19 days before being recaptured by relieved Keepers.This summer, the excellent Dartmoor Zoo, well known from the feature-film “We brought a Zoo” staring Matt Damon, had a clever lynx escape, hiding out on Dartmoor before being expertly recaptured.
So, what do zoos do to prevent escapes and plan for in case they do happen? Is there specialist training and are you, the visitor, in safe hands when you visit your local animal park. In brief, yes. With today’s environmental licensing, local authority management and zoo-industry knowledge-sharing, zoos are the best equipped they’ve ever been on the whole to deal with situations when their animals don’t quite follow the script!
Here at Noah’s Ark, like our colleagues at other UK zoos we have an in-depth training and Animal Escape Policy procedure in place. (Just in case a rhino decides to explore Somerset, or a bear goes for a wander on the look out for honey..!)
Every year, all zoo staff take part in a full Animal Escape Drill, recreating the (unlikely) situation of an animal escaping its enclosure. Each team has a specific role, whether it be rounding up the animal, marshaling visitors to safety, calling support from the vet, police or fire brigade or readying firearms in the very rare instance they need to be used to protect human life.
Amusing for some to watch, to recreate the moment, a Keeper or Groundsman will often take the role of the ‘escapee’ animal (sometimes with animal costume or face-mask!) and make a dash for freedom. This is where each team’s training comes in – identifying the category of animal risk (Red, Amber, Green traffic light system to denote the risk to people), and creating a recapture or containment plan.
The role of key members of staff is important, particularly senior animal managers who decide how best to attempt recapture with their knowledge of the species but also the individual animal’s temperament and character. Is it docile, wary of people, easily frightened or food-oriented?
With a range of big-zoo animals at Noah’s Ark, elephants, rhino, big cats, giraffes and bears are fascinating for visitors to see in their habitats and houses. Visitors are often interested to hear that the construction of each house and enclosure is carefully planned months in advance to consider the best containment methods, the strength of barriers tested and the escape behaviour of the species. You don’t want to build a nice strong fence only to find your bear can just dig underneath! There’s a lot of hidden engineering in zoos…
Although this is all serious and important, it does also contain a lighthearted element – animal escape drills at zoos are now synonymous with comedy YouTube videos.. mainly thanks to Japanese zoos who began a trend by filming their training and allowing paying visitors to come to watch! Check out this amusing Zebra escape drill.. comedy gold.
Jokes aside, these days zoos are confident in their park safety and animal/visitor protection and you’re unlikely to ever see anything as dramatic as a lion jumping a fence during your day visit. Offering incredible up-close experiences with beautiful, inspiring animals, why not plan your visit this summer to your nearest zoo to see them in person? You’re in safe hands!