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Why Zoos Can’t Completely Lock Down to Prevent What Happened in Dallas

Why Zoos Can’t Completely Lock Down to Prevent What Happened in Dallas

Future Tense

Caged tiger in 1903 and a tiger at the Byculla zoo in 2015.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Print Collector/Getty Images and Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The man arrested on suspicion of releasing a clouded leopard from its exhibit, abducting two monkeys to hide them in a closet, and killing an endangered vulture reportedly told police that he would do it again. Why? He loves animals.

Since Davion Irvin’s alleged escapades at the Dallas Zoo, similar incidents have occurred at several zoos around the country, perhaps inspired by his actions. The Houston Zoo found that someone had cut into the enclosure of brown pelicans, and the Central Park Zoo continues attempts to recapture a Eurasian eagle owl after the same form of vandalism.

Understandably, many people seem surprised that these events are even possible. After all, aren’t zoo exhibits designed to keep animals contained? Is it really that easy for people to get animals out? If, as critics claim, zoos are “animal prisons,” how is it that the inmates can be sprung so easily? The reality is that out of concern for animals’ well-being, professional zoos have moved away from the cement and steel bars that have historically defined the institution. But these large open-air exhibits are also more vulnerable to determined actors’ vandalism and abduction.

Zoo exhibits have always been imperfectly secure, even when they were simply barred cages. In 1958, a young girl got too close to the lions at the National Zoo and was (at least according to one newspaper headline) “decapitated,” leading to national media attention and major changes to that facility. Among other things, some zoos attempted to create more distance between animal and visitor through moats and raised walls. Unfortunately, moated exhibits have had several notable failures. For one, they rely on uncertain estimates of animals’ leaping distance. As San Francisco Zoo’s tiger escape and attack in 2006 shows, sometimes those estimates are wrong. The fall from a raised wall also makes it even more hazardous if a person ends up inside the exhibit. In 1996, a boy fell into the moated gorilla exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo and was safely carried over to paramedics by Binti-Jua, a female gorilla residing inside. Unfortunately, the outcome was much more tragic when another young boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 and the zoo made the difficult decision to shoot the silverback Harambe to ensure the child’s safety.

Today’s zoo exhibits typically employ the architectural technique of “landscape immersion,” pioneered by the gorilla exhibit at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in 1979. In this iteration of exhibits, animals are in placed in more natural context, in a space full of grass and trees instead of cement and steel. The more nature-centered focus also invites more quiet and calm reflection of the animals exhibited, rather than the jeering exclamations often lobbed at animals in cages. For the first time in zoos, the gorillas even began climbing trees. That was mostly a good thing, but it meant the silverback Kiki soon discovered he could use a large branch to climb out of the exhibit. Thankfully, Kiki decided to hide in the bushes immediately outside of the exhibit until the Woodland Park Zoo’s veterinarian arrived and tranquilized him. Though the silverback did not try to escape again, the offending branch-turned-ladder was removed and hot wire was added to the top of the wall as an additional precaution.

Modern zoo exhibits are safer and more secure than exhibits of decades past, in particular due to new construction materials, including multipaned glass, anchored steel poles, and stronger mesh and cables. There are still surprises, however, as evidenced by the escape of a jaguar from its exhibit at the Audubon Zoo in 2018. The young male jaguar, Valerio, had climbed to the top of the exhibit and chewed through the thick metal mesh on the top. Jaguars have the strongest bite of any big cat, but no one could have expected Valerio to use his talent quite that way. The zoo increased the thickness of the exhibit’s steel mesh and the industry standards for all future jaguar exhibits were accordingly adjusted.

What is truly disturbing about the recent incidents at the Dallas Zoo, and now other facilities, is that these actions are intentional. Modern exhibits may be built to withstand hurricanes, but they aren’t impervious to lock cutters. The goal of the modern professional zoo is for people to come see the animals and to actively support protection of these creatures in the wild. You cannot revoke visitation privileges the same way you lock down a military base—the zoo’s very mission relies on visitors. Therefore, to truly secure the zoo would mean a return to small cement, steel, and glass boxes. That’s hardly a workable solution for anyone—animals, staff, or visitors. Recognizing this, the Dallas Zoo has done what it can in response to the recent events, including increasing the number of patrols, overnight staff, and cameras, but perfectly securing 106 acres is difficult and expensive.

Zoos have been innovating more naturalistic exhibits for nearly half a century. So why is there suddenly a string of vandalism and theft? One explanation is the growing demand for the species that are kept in the zoo, either as exotic pets or wildlife products to be sold. Irvin claims to be motivated by love of animals, and his decision to hide the tamarins in the closet of the house he was residing in suggests he wanted to keep them as pets. Yet his actions left two small monkeys in medical observation and may have led to the death of an endangered vulture.

Others break into zoos for even more worrying reasons. In the early 1900s, zoos collected many animals from the wild. However, after World War II, new international conservation regulations, increasing independence of once-colonized nations, and decreasing wild populations made wild capture an unsustainable form of collection management. To adapt, zoos began to collectively manage and breed animals to maintain captive populations long-term. Many of these species have become so rare in the wild that some poachers have found zoo animals an appealing target. In 2017, for instance, poachers killed a four-year-old rhinoceros at a French zoo in order to steal the animal’s horn. The fact that poachers are finding it more economical to target zoos rather than comparably unmonitored and unprotected wild populations shows that global conservation is truly in a dire state.

It also means the battle lines of conservation are being drawn closer and closer to home, particularly when it comes to the glorification of exotic-pet ownership. Online content featuring exotic animals is highly engaging, but people often lack the behavioral familiarity or animal care context to be appropriately concerned. A 2021 study found that the comments on YouTube videos of exotic animals were typically positive, even when the interactions demonstrated fear or aggression. Often times, this is from a lack of understanding basic animal behavior, such as the fact that in chimpanzees and other non-human apes, smiling is a sign of stress, not happiness. Viral animal trends have consequences like the surge of otters as pets in Southeast Asia. The low-context digital environment of today’s endless newsfeed of exotic animal selfies and 10-second video clips makes it easy to leave the care and acquisition of these animals unquestioned.

Pin, the Dallas Zoo’s Lappet-faced vulture, was found dead under suspicious circumstances in the midst of Irvin’s alleged activities, though the bird’s death has not yet been officially linked to him. These majestic vultures are about the same size and weight as a California condor and are experiencing a similarly precipitous decline in the wild due to poisonings, both incidental and purposeful. To prevent vultures from drawing authorities’ attention to the body, poachers may lace elephant or rhino kills with poison, killing hundreds of birds at a time. If Pin’s death was indeed connected to the activities of trespassers, the poaching that has been wiping out Pin’s species in the wild, albeit in a different form, may have ended his life in captivity.

Future Tense
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New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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