Duck and Cover – A lion has escaped.

Lions relaxing in the Sun at the Bronx Zoo

Imagine this scenario. It’s a beautiful Tuesday afternoon and you have decided to skive of work and take some time to visit your local zoo.  You purchase some cotton candy and start on a leisurely stroll whilst enjoying the tranquil environment. As you take a bite of your candy you look up to see a four foot high, 550 pound African lion standing on the path in front of you. So what’s next?

OK, thankfully this is an extremely rare scenario but animals do escape their enclosures and zoos need to be prepared for that scary event. As I have written in previous posts, escape-proof enclosures aren’t necessarily escape-proof when you consider the human factor into the equation. So what do good zoos have in place to protect the public in the unlikely event that an animal does escape?

All zoos must have an emergency evacuation or containment procedure in place for the safety of patrons – so here is the procedure.  Firstly they need to identify the emergency by issuing an emergency code across the zoos internal radio communication system. The list of codes goes something like this:

Code Red – Dangerous animal escape. Lion, tigers, gorillas, bears, male giraffe;

Code Blue – Hazardous animal escape. Smaller wild cats, camel, female giraffe;                     

Code Yellow -Non-threatening animal escape. Koala, lemur, turtle, python

Snow Leopard at Central Park Zoo

So for the purpose of this scenario the zoo has now issued a Code Red Alert and all staff have been informed that there is a lion on the loose. Evacuation and containment measures are immediately put in place with visitors being evacuated into safe shelters that are located across the zoo.  Generally these safe shelters are located on the zoo map. Staff, by using the zoo’s loud speaker system, will direct visitors to the safest and most convenient shelters away from the escapee.

Whilst the evacuation is underway, an emergency response team is dispatched to hunt down the escaped animal and neutralise the risk. The emergency response team usually consists of a team of zoo employees armed with both tranquilizer guns and conventional guns. Which weapon is used will be determined on the immediate risk to human life at the time of locating the escapee. This team is generally not at full time stand-by team ready to be called out to hunt down an escaped animal at a moment’s notice, but more like a set of employees that have been trained in the use of firearms. Think of them like the nominated fire warden at your place of employment, but with guns! 

None of the above probably means a hell of a lot to you because in our scenario you are being measured up for lunch by a 500 pound lion. You’re probably trying to remember what it is that you are supposed to do when confronted with a lion. Are you meant to stare into its eyes, not stare, roll up into a little ball and play dead, run, or just make yourself look big?  (For the record the best way to handle a lion is to intimidate it. Grab branches or a jacket and wave it around. Do not run and do not roll up into a little ball to play dead.) So let’s say that in this scenario you just happened to read this post and managed to scare the lion off by using the art of intimidation (you may have lost your cotton candy though!). The zoo keepers come around the corner and tranquilize the lion so now the problem is neutralized, you’re a hero and the lion is asleep. The head zoo keeper will now make an announcement to all staff that the situation is under control by issuing an all clear code allowing all visitors to leave their secure shelters –  and you get to do the talk show circuit.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo

Although it is rare for visitors to be attacked by zoo animals unless they jump into the enclosure, it’s more common for zoo keepers to be attacked. The most recent example of this in May 2013 was at the South Lakes Animal Park in England where a 24 year old zoo keeper was killed by a tiger in its enclosure. There are lots of examples of zoo keepers being either killed or injured caring for their animals. Thank goodness good zoos put just as much time into the safety of their employees as they do the public.



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