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Balancing animal and visitor safety at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

Zoe Mitchell
A sculpture greets visitors on the way to the monkey exhibit

Credit Zoe Mitchell
A new sign greets zoo visitors

Last May, a three-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and was picked up by Harambe, a rare, endangered silverback gorilla. Out of fear for the boy’s life, zoo officials made the tough call to kill Harambe.

The next morning, Don Hutchinson, CEO and president of The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, sent his staff out to double-check their own security measures to make sure animals and visitors are protected.

"I gave some direction to our facilities manager and our safety manager," he said. "They put together a group of folks to walk around the campus to make a determination as to whether or not we were secure in all places. And we absolutely saw some things that we needed to improve."

Now, he said, they are "paying a little bit more attention on how parents and children are interacting at each exhibit."

It’s not unusual for visitors to disregard safety measures, intentionally or not, in zoos but the Maryland Zoo hasn’t had any incidents in the past 40 years. Hutchinson says, by zoo standards, the Baltimore facility has an up-to-date infrastructure as well as thorough zoo keeper training to prevent and react to incidents like the one in Cincinnati.

A good part of the training goes to keeper safety, as dealing with undomesticated animals is dangerous. However, it’s still a difficult decision to kill any animal in a zoo, no matter how well-trained the staff.

Hutchinson says it depends on the moment and the urgency of the situation. In Cincinnati, he says, they made the right call.

"It’s unfortunate that they were forced into that position. They’ve triggered a chain reaction."

Killing the gorilla raised questions of the importance of conservation of rare animals versus public safety. Visitors at the Maryland Zoo struggled with answering those questions.

Kelly Kanode, a Glen Burnie resident and mother of a four-year-old girl, said she worries about the safety of the animal.

"We’re here to enjoy their beauty, but are you hurting them or are we helping them? I’m not quite sure."

And Baltimore resident David Arnold had a similar thought.

"People can argue on both sides and it’s a contended issue because we want to conserve both," he said. "And then the real question comes down to, do you place human life over animal life?"

Hutchison says conservation is the main focus of accredited zoos and The Maryland Zoo is no different.

Recently, the zoo hosted the bi-annual African Penguin Species Survival Plan in which penguin experts matched penguins with appropriate mates and discussed extinction prevention strategies.

"We are in the business of conservation, we are in the business of saving animals from extinction, that’s what the accredited zoos of this country do," said Hutchinson. "And if we don’t think that an elephant is valuable for the lifetime of this planet, then I think we have a very narrow view of the world."

While conservation efforts continue, zoo officials must be up-to-date on new threats.

Pokemon Go is the latest gaming app that augments reality in that you can find a “wild” Pokemon in your backyard, a grocery story or maybe in an animal enclosure. And that worries Hutchinson.

"Last week there was a lot of buzz about Pokemon Go because first of all a lot of us didn’t quite know what it was or what it meant," he said. "Secondly, we saw it come on the campus very quickly and there were a lot of folks concerned about it."

He wondered whether a visitor would be "foolish enough to try and get close to the animal" to try to catch a Pokemon.

Hutchison said the zoo plans to keep an eye on the game and won’t make any decisions about banning it unless there’s a reason. He doesn’t want to discourage anybody from visiting.

While zoos have a long history of visitor and animal interaction, it never lessens the need for a glimpse at a lion, an elephant, or a gorilla.