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Tapir attacks past, present, but hopefully not future


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Last Thursday (August 8th, 2013) a Brazilian or Lowland tapir Tapirus terrestris at Dublin Zoo (Ireland) seriously attacked and injured a two-year-old girl that, believe it or don’t, was taken into the tapir’s enclosure. The child’s mother was injured as she tried to rescue (or, rescued) the little girl. The girl reportedly received “deep abdomen and arm injuries” that involved arterial damage and de-gloving of hand and arm skin (yes, this is exactly what it sounds like). Reparative surgery has occurred in hospital. It may not surprise you to know that the tapir was a mother with a young calf (you may have seen this case being much discussed on facebook and twitter: I tweet @TetZoo). The story broke about two days ago and features worldwide in online and printed media today.

Jenny, Marmaduke and baby Rio: the Brazilian tapirs at Dublin Zoo. Photo from Sky News.

There are two responses that people might give to this news. One is… OMG, you mean tapirs are dangerous? In which case, the answer is: yes, they’re big (150-250 kg), strong, rhino-like* animals with dangerous teeth and a renowned unpredictability which makes them especially dangerous. The second response is… duh, of course tapirs are dangerous: they’re big, strong rhino-like animals with dangerous teeth and a renowned unpredictability which makes them especially dangerous. Did I mention that they’re dangerous?

* Tapirs and rhinos are close relatives with the perissodactyl clade Ceratomorpha. Early members of both lineages looked similar.

Keeper checks Denzil's the Brazilian tapir's teeth at Bristol Zoo, a photo I took in August 2009. Tapirs can be friendly animals that enjoy human contact. Photo by Darren Naish.

In fact, while captive tapirs will spend a lot of their time being friendly, peaceful and more than happy to engage in human contact, it’s well known to those who know tapirs (or, indeed, know about mammals in captivity in general) that they’re notorious for their unpredictable, bitey behaviour when with their young babies. Indeed, the Dublin incident is the very opposite of a world first, since quite a few tapir attacks are already on record. The most notorious happened at Oklahoma Zoo in 1998 when Melody, a female Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus (or should that be Acrocodia indicus indica*), bit a keeper’s arm clean off, and also caused facial injuries and a punctured lung. The keeper’s arm was severed at mid-biceps which might give you some idea of how dangerous and powerful a tapir’s bite can be, this being the thickest and (presumably) most difficult part of an arm to bite through. Again, this tapir had a two-month-old baby, and this presumably explained her aggressive behaviour.

* Increasingly, I think it should. The Malayan tapir falls outside of the American tapir clade in phylogenies (Ashley et al. 1996, Norman & Ashley 2000), diverged from the American ones perhaps more than 20 million years ago (Norman & Ashley 2000), and differs obviously from the American species in integumentary characters and in skull form (indicus is unlike American tapirs in having a taller anterior part of the cranium caused by uniquely large sinuses, more elevated nasals and a longer, deeper nasal cavity). The suggestion that Baird’s tapir (currently Tapirus bairdii) is not a member of Tapirus but represents an additional lineage (the name Tapirella Palmer, 1903 is available) has also been made but seems less well supported.

One of several weird (and not particularly good) tapir photos I've taken over the years. This is another Brazilian tapir, this time at Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire (UK). Photo by Darren Naish.

Also worth noting is that Haddad et al. (2005) described a fatal attack by a wild Brazilian tapir on a man, though in this case the man stabbed the tapir on discovering it in his corn field and it also later died from its wounds. Conservationist Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy, was attacked by a Baird’s tapir in Corcovado National Park in 2006. Again, the attacking tapir had a calf and Echandi made special efforts to get close for a good look. The mother charged him to the ground, biting his boot and backpack (he says that this backpack probably saved his life) before trying to bite him on the back of the neck. He managed to escape before becoming unconscious; separated from his party, he became lost in the jungle for three days before rescue. (You can read an interview with Echandi here at the Tapir Specialist Group site.)

Tapir skeleton on display at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Elevated nasals and the shape of the nasal cavity indicate that this is a Malayan tapir. Photo by Darren Naish.

This brings us back to a topic discussed on Tet Zoo in the dim and distant past but never satisfactorily revisited: the issue of which animals are especially dangerous to keepers when kept in captivity. Giant anteaters Myrmecophaga tridactyla, elephants, rhinos, Killer whales Orcinus orca, Greater kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros, Wolves Canis lupus, Lions Panthera leo, Tigers P. tigris, Giant otters Pteronura brasiliensis and Brown bears Ursus arctos, among others, have all caused occasional fatalities in zoos, but the most dangerous animals – in terms of overall numbers of attacks – are said to be deer and zebras. I’d really like to see a single, comprehensive review of injuries and deaths caused by captive animals but have yet to see one… nor have I gone to the trouble of creating one myself. Add as much info to the comments as you can and make such a task easier, thanks.

Another weird tapir photo I have: a stretching Malayan at Marwell Wildlife (tip of snout unfortunately not captured in the frame). Is it perfoming a flehmen response? Nowak says (in a caption to a sitting tapir) that such a sitting posture is "unusual for a perissodactyl". I dunno; I don't think it's that unusual for tapirs. Photo by Darren Naish.

Finally, lest people now imagine tapirs to be malevolent, toddler-mauling monsters that behave more like Jurassic Park velociraptors than the real, herbivorous animals they are, attacks like those discussed here are still rare, exceptional events that occur due to inappropriate planning and a lack of due care. Investigations at Dublin Zoo will of course lead to far stricter and more sensible behaviour in future and, indeed, behaviour at zoos worldwide will probably be revised. It may therefore be that this unfortunate incident won’t ever be repeated. I am, I have to admit, still shocked that somebody would think it ok to take a two-year-old child anywhere near a big animal like a tapir (I’m a parent, and there are times when you don’t let your kids get close to domestic animals like horses, pigs and even some cats and dogs), but I feel sorry for everyone involved. The tapir was just doing what tapirs do; unpredictability and occasional aggression on the part of mothers with young babies are part of the deal.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on perissodactyls, see…

Ref – -

Ashley, M. V., Norman, J. E. & Stross, L. 1996. Phylogenetic analysis of the perissodactylan family Tapiridae using mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase (COII) sequences. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 3, 315-326.

Haddad, V., Chagas Assunção, M., Coelho de Mello, R. & Ribeiro Duarte, M. 2005. A fatal attack caused by a Lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in southeastern Brazil. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 16, 97-100.

Norman, J. E. & Ashley, M. V. 2000. Phylogenetics of Perissodactyla and tests of the molecular clock. Journal of Molecular Evolution 50, 11-21.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Andreas Johansson 10:50 am 08/11/2013

    the most dangerous animals – in terms of overall numbers of attacks – are said to be deer and zebras

    Presumably, those are also relatively common zoo animals. Shouldn’t the title of “most dangerous” go to the one with the most attacks per kept animal?

    (One might also question if number of attacks is the relevant metric, as presumably attacks of different species are differentially dangerous in terms of likelihood of death or serious injury.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. rbcrmr 11:32 am 08/11/2013

    I think the animal most likely to attack in my zoo is a mallard duck, which does so every single day. I often remark that if the mallard duck was 100x its size, it would be the most dangerous animal in the world!

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  3. 3. Richard Freeman 12:45 pm 08/11/2013

    I’ve kept both Malayan and Brazilian. The former is very skittish but the latter, in all cases became ‘dog tame’.
    Malayan tapirs have an allergic reaction to straw that causes them to prolapse. I bedded the ones i kept on peat.
    I’ve seen the skulls of tapir killed by tiger in Sumatra. They do indeed have impressive dentition.
    As for dangerous zoo animals the was an excellent article in the wonderfully named magazine ‘Murder Can be Fun’ called ‘Zoo Deaths’that listed the fatal attacks on keepers / public by animals in zoos. It included my old mate Roy Locke who was headbutted to death by an Asian elephant called Iris.

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  4. 4. David Marjanović 1:14 pm 08/11/2013

    I’m a parent, and there are times when you don’t let your kids get close to domestic animals like horses, pigs and even some cats and dogs

    Dogs attack little children all the time, and it seems like half the time they succeed in killing the child.

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  5. 5. Mike from Ottawa 3:01 pm 08/11/2013

    I hope there will be tapir attacks in the future. The only way there won’t be is if either (a) humans stop ever being stupid or (b) we kill off every last tapir. Sadly, only (b) has any chance of happening.

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  6. 6. Pascaline Lauters 3:02 pm 08/11/2013

    A few years ago there was a fuss in Belgium over the way some caretakers of a famous zoo handled an angry reindeer.
    On the original video, you could see an individual (a young male if I remember) attacks the people inside the pen and their efforts to free their wounded coworker (http://www.koreus.com/video/attaque-renne-zoo-anvers.html).

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:42 pm 08/11/2013

    Probably every big animal with sufficient strength occasionally attacked and killed people in a zoo.

    It is said that most dangerous zoo animals are elephants. Mostly because they weigh 40 times more than man and historically they were always kept in unprotected contact with their keepers.

    Having said that, in Bangkok Dusit Zoo I saw adult elephant with a calf standing unprotected with their keepers, and a sign encouraged public to buy vegetables and feed elephants. In the late afternoon a ten-year old boy climbed the larger elephant and ridden it across the zoo, probably to its stable. And I enjoyed it, from visitor perspective, much more than European zoos. No risk, no fun.

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  8. 8. Christopher Taylor 4:57 pm 08/11/2013

    or should that be Acrocodia indicus

    Or should that be Acrocodia indica?

    I remember seeing a complaint a number of years ago in a book about zoos that records were not adequate to properly judge the risk from various animals; I don’t know whether that situation has improved since then.

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  9. 9. White Jenna 7:13 pm 08/11/2013

    Zoo keeper here. Worked with Brazilian tapirs over a decade ago, and always had the Oklahoma story in the back of my mind when I went in with them. Never had any issues with them.
    As far as “dangerous” animals go…at most zoos you don’t go in with the large carnivores, etc. So you’re more likely to get injured by hoofstock or smaller critters, because you’re in direct contact with them. Most of the keeper injuries that I’ve heard of have been from animals that we’re required to catch up by hand. A macaw may not be as big as a lion, but it can still do permanent nerve damage.
    Myself, I’ve been “injured” (anything from “ow” to “yeah, I should go get that looked at”) by clouded leopard and tiger cubs, adult lion, common boa, blue and gold macaw, Papuan hornbill, black vulture, three-banded armadillo, Moluccan cockatoo, Aldabra tortoise, and Chinese muntjac. In addition to countless wheelbarrows, fences, logs, branches, door frames, rocky outcroppings, and other exhibit furniture. And my entire body is probably aged at least ten years due to the sheer physical demands of the profession. But that’s not nearly as exciting as animal attacks. :)
    This post is featured in one of the Facebook keeper groups, so you may get some more injury comments. There was a large thread with “your worst injury” story last month.

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  10. 10. Heteromeles 8:47 pm 08/11/2013

    Story from the LA Zoo about 20 years ago. The zebras are kept on the outer edge of the zoo, which is in contact with the semi-wild Griffith Park. The zebras were fairly fecund, and but the keepers had horrible problems getting mares with their new foals to go into their barns at night. Finally, out of frustration, they started leaving an especially obstreperous mare with her foal out in the paddock at night. Soon thereafter, the keeper came in one morning to find a dead coyote (head stomped in) in the zebra pen, along with a perfectly healthy mare and foal. At that point, they stopped worrying about leaving the mares and foals outside. Hopefully, the one mountain lion living in Griffith Park never gets interested in what zebra might taste like…

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  11. 11. Ogre magi 9:48 pm 08/11/2013

    rbcrmr, duck are necrophiliacs too. The Satanists should really consider making ducks their symbol instead of goats
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1v_EcjeIkg

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  12. 12. BilBy 9:56 pm 08/11/2013

    I think it was in Gerald Durrel’s book about being a keeper at Whipsnade when he mentions the calm, tame behaviour of a Grevy’s zebra but the dangerous, aggressive behaviour of Burchells (Plains) zebra. Having been bitten on the arse by a horse recently I’m not keen to go anywhere near the toothy end of a wild perissodactyl. I’m pretty sure I have seen, and have, photos of young white rhinos sitting in the posture described as “unusual for a perissodactyl” – wild ones.

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  13. 13. Habibi 1:10 am 08/12/2013

    I spent two years as a volunteer zoo keeper’s assistant, in Australia. While cleaning out a Common Wombat enclosure one day, I was bitten on the lower leg by the sole occupant. I was lucky – the animal mistook my trouser leg for flesh and snapped at it, otherwise I may have needed surgery – all I have now is an indentation and a small scar. Another keeper later told me that the same animal had once bitten clean through the heel of a rubber boot. (I had not known previously how grumpy this particular animal could be, or how blinkin’ fast wombats can run!) During my time at this animal park, I saw numerous injuries inflicted on other keepers handling captive animals, including a bicep severely damaged by the solid kick from a rock wallaby. Of course, you don’t go into the cassowary or crocodile enclosures without an escape plan and a buddy. Some animals were known for repeatedly biting or attacking keepers (away from the eye of the public!) and had appropriate nicknames. One pre-weaning koala in the zoo hospital/orphanage was infamous for biting keepers on the, er, chest during bottle-feeding. There was also a pack of ex-National Park “problem” dingoes on display, which made me very nervous – they had a habit of slinking into one’s blindspot, waiting for their chance. Most of the people I worked with were covered in multiple scars, small bruises and scratches, but we would sit around during coffee breaks and compare these as badges of honour.
    Outside of this work, I have been bitten by lots of friendly and unfriendly animals, including Carpet Python (my fault), Green Tree Snake (my fault), Eastern Water Dragon (my fault), Eclectus Parrot(captive bird who should have been better behaved), and attacked and bitten by domestic dogs (many times; always the owners’ fault). I have also been attacked by a male Pacific Black Duck, and a Black Swan (both protecting offspring). The dogs were the worst.

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  14. 14. Dartian 2:09 am 08/12/2013

    Darren:
    Add as much info to the comments as you can and make such a task easier, thanks.

    Zoo animals that have caused human fatalities, eh? Well, in addition to those you listed, off the top of my head these include at least: leopard, jaguar, cheetah (yes, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus – a visitor who entered a cheetah’s cage in a zoo in Belgium was killed by the cat), hyena, African wild dog, Asian black bear, camel, giraffe, wildebeest, muskox, and Burmese python. I’ll add more if I think of any.

    Incidentally, it’s remarkable (considering how common they are in captivity) that chimpanzees don’t seem to have caused human deaths in zoos. Chimps have certainly mauled and seriously injured people, but I know of no fatalities having occurred in public, official zoos – but if anyone knows better, please tell.

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  15. 15. Pristichampsus 2:43 am 08/12/2013

    Don’t forget Peccaries. The Peccaries at Adelaide zoo are classified as one of the most potentially dangerous animals, along with cassowaries, tapirs, big cats, etc.

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  16. 16. Chabier G. 3:08 am 08/12/2013

    As a Wildlife Rescue Center vet in NE Spain, I work with rather small animals, because we only deal with protected fauna, and big carnivores were all but extirpated in this zone, appart from less than 10 bears in our part of the Pyrenees and some wandering ghost wolves. Then, the most dangerous animals we receive are big raptors (vultures, golden eagle, eagle owl,…)and carnivores like otter or badger. The main conclusion I can get after 16 years working with these animals is that the most dangerous are always the tamed ones. You can easily come into a wild Golden Eagle cage and take it, it will always try to run away, but an imprinted golden eagle is a real peril. We carry out the control and marking of every Falconry raptor in Aragón, and this tamed or even imprinted birds have really unpredictable reactions. Otherwise, the only serious accident reported among concerned citizens that find and take the animals to bring them us, was that of a man who lost one of their eyes capturing a purple heron. Caution is needed dealing with herons, they always search for eyes with their bills when cornered, and many people don’t expect this behaviour in such an elegant bird (everybody knows eagles are dangerous and treats them with care). Storks don’t uses to be so aggressive,only males in the mating season, and seldom try to jab an eye, they only bite randomly. Bitterns are worse, they don’t wait, they actively jump and try to reach the eyes of somebody who has entered their cage.
    We receive, sometimes, roe deer and red deer fawns, and this year a Spanish Ibex kid. The problem with these animals, hand raised, is that they recognize Human as their own species, and adult males defend territories and/or females fighting with other males, these imprinted deers, when adult, are deadly dangerous. There is a fatality reported here, in Aragón. A shepherd who found a red deer fawn and fed them, when the deer was 1 year old and had its first rut, with two single spearlike antlers, the man entered the enclosure and was jabbed in the chest, dying immediately.

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  17. 17. Dartian 3:28 am 08/12/2013

    Pristichampsus:
    The Peccaries at Adelaide zoo are classified as one of the most potentially dangerous animals

    Potentially dangerous, sure, but have zoo peccaries actually ever killed anyone (at Adelaide Zoo or elsewhere)? I believe that’s what Darren was interested to know – as am I, for that matter.

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  18. 18. Perisoreus 4:14 am 08/12/2013

    It is surprising how surprised people are when they hear that tapirs, horses, geese or any other animals are actually capable of injuring and even killing humans (and not only the other way round). I mean, you’ll even see that from time to time between “normal” fellow humans, so why not between “tame” cage animals and humans?

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  19. 19. Jenny Islander 5:00 am 08/12/2013

    Living at the edge of a national wildlife refuge, with eagles overhead and bears regularly trekking right through town to swim to nearby islands, I am continually shocked at the utter blithering naivete of parents in urban areas. I mean, yes, if you didn’t get the lectures about wildlife avoidance in school, or have to practice the last-ditch protect-your-vitals posture, okay, you might not realize how dangerous a wild creature really is . . . BUT DON’T PARENTS NOTICE THAT THESE ANIMALS WEIGH SEVERAL HUNDRED POUNDS?! Even if the tapir was a sweetie huggy honey schnookums, all it would have to do was step on the kid’s foot to cause a serious injury!

    ARGH. People had more of an excuse when most of what they knew about wildlife came from cartoons, but these days there are multiple channels running shows about animals taking each other apart around the clock!

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  20. 20. Andreas Johansson 6:51 am 08/12/2013

    Perisoreus wrote:
    It is surprising how surprised people are when they hear that tapirs, horses, geese or any other animals are actually capable of injuring and even killing humans

    Much of it, I think, is the idea that herbivores are “peaceful”.

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  21. 21. White Jenna 8:12 am 08/12/2013

    Re: zebras. At the Virginia Zoo, a zebra somehow got into the lion enclosure overnight. Staff came in the next morning to find a slightly clawed zebra and a muddy lioness in opposite corners (presumably glaring at each other).
    Of course public perception (aided by Disney) is that nothing cute can be dangerous. Tamarins are notorious biters, but everybody wants one.

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  22. 22. Unksoldr 8:36 am 08/12/2013

    Being a large mammal myself, I must say take me from my home and put me in a cage, don’t be surprised when I try to bite.

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  23. 23. Dartian 10:33 am 08/12/2013

    I’ve been giving this matter of zoo animals killing people some attention (probably more than I really should – thanks a lot, Darren!). We can add American black bear and bison (at least I presume it’s bison; the source said ‘buffalo’ and the location was a small zoo in the US, so Bison bison is the most likely species) to the list of zoo animals that have killed humans, and further note that both African and Asian elephants have caused human fatalities.

    One disturbing thing that emerges from reading this kind of accounts is that in surprisingly many cases the circumstances suggest that the humans may have deliberately entered the animals’ (typically big cats’, more rarely bears’) cages in order to commit suicide. I don’t know what depths of despair it takes to reach such a decision; perhaps a desire to inflict as much physical pain on yourself as possible before the end? :(

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  24. 24. Dartian 11:15 am 08/12/2013

    Oh, I almost forgot to comment on this:

    Christopher:
    Or should that be Acrocodia indica?

    It should. As for Baird’s tapir, assigning it to the genus Tapirella is becoming increasingly common as well. Better get used to changes in tapirid nomenclature, I suggest. ;)

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  25. 25. waltermatera 11:23 am 08/12/2013

    I think it might be ‘going out in a burst of glory’ in that case. No thanks. I want die a lot quicker than eaten alive by some obstreperous big carnivore.

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  26. 26. SRPlant 12:04 pm 08/12/2013

    Killer whales?

    I seem to recall reading that some deeply disturbed individuals climb into lion enclosures clutching bibles…

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  27. 27. Heteromeles 12:16 pm 08/12/2013

    @SRPlant: One such story came out of the Asian lion enclosure at the LA Zoo (where I worked as docent as a teen). Supposedly, a docent spotted a man lecturing the lions about the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. The next day, the keepers found a partially eaten human skeleton in the enclosure. I never got the rest of the story.

    I did also hear about some dude wanting to play Tarzan in his skivvies to show off for his girlfriend. He stripped down and managed to get down a 15 foot tall wall into the lion’s enclosure. When a lioness took an interest in him, somehow he managed to scale the same damn wall in record time. He was escorted out of the park and invited not to return.

    My personal favorite was the tiger enclosure. It was well below audience level, with a deep pool and high wall between the visitors and the tigers (too deep for the tigers to get their feet on the ground and jump out). One day I caught a visitor lowering a stroller with a toddler over the wall, out over the pool, so his kid could get a better view of the tigers. I chewed him out. We couldn’t have retrieved the kid, who, being strapped into the stroller, was in at least as much danger of drowning in the pool as getting eaten, if his father dropped him.

    I’m starting to think that the only thing that separates humans from other animals is the number of different ways we’ve figured out to be stupid. Talk about diversity…

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  28. 28. Dartian 12:38 pm 08/12/2013

    Heteromeles:
    One day I caught a visitor lowering a stroller with a toddler over the wall, out over the pool, so his kid could get a better view of the tigers.

    /Shakes head.

    Good thing you intervened.

    Remember that recent tragedy in Pittsburgh Zoo where a 2-year old boy was killed by African wild dogs? He fell down from a wooden railing on the viewing edge; his mother had put him up there so that he could see better.

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  29. 29. llewelly 3:39 pm 08/12/2013

    Despite all that has occurred, I remain convinced a mama tapir will likely remain peaceful, provided no-one crosses the barrier to pose their darling toddler with the cute baby tapir.

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  30. 30. Basandere 3:41 pm 08/12/2013

    Not that I’d doubt for a second they can be dangerous, but… how do giant anteaters kill people? I assume they can’t bite, but would rely on their front claws.
    Are they aggressive at all, or would they also be protecing their young?

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  31. 31. David Marjanović 3:48 pm 08/12/2013

    There was a large thread with “your worst injury” story last month.

    So, zoo keepers are like chemists? :-)

    The Satanists should really consider making ducks their symbol instead of goats

    Everyone has, I trust, read the Real Life examples here?

    a bicep

    A biceps. A two-headed [muscle]. If you want to know the original Latin plural, that’s bicipites.

    One disturbing thing that emerges from reading this kind of accounts is that in surprisingly many cases the circumstances suggest that the humans may have deliberately entered the animals’ (typically big cats’, more rarely bears’) cages in order to commit suicide.

    Huh. The tourist who stuck her arm into the wolf enclosure in Vienna and almost left it there just wanted to pet the beautiful animals.

    Supposedly, a docent spotted a man lecturing the lions about the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. The next day, the keepers found a partially eaten human skeleton in the enclosure. I never got the rest of the story.

    Dirtly little secret: the Book of Daniel is a historical novel written in the second-to-last century BCE.

    I’m starting to think that the only thing that separates humans from other animals is the number of different ways we’ve figured out to be stupid. Talk about diversity…

    + 1

    how do giant anteaters kill people? I assume they can’t bite, but would rely on their front claws.

    Well, look at those claws. An anteater only needs to wipe in your general direction to kill you.

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  32. 32. White Jenna 7:58 pm 08/12/2013

    “Being a large mammal myself, I must say take me from my home and put me in a cage, don’t be surprised when I try to bite.”

    Unksoldr, the vast majority of zoo animals are born in captivity these days. They *are* home. And just like us, they don’t always appreciate visitors.

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  33. 33. White Jenna 8:12 pm 08/12/2013

    I’ve worked quite a bit with giant anteaters, both hand raised and wild caught. The males are either goofy or aggressive, sometimes both within the same minute. Females vary by individual. When threatened, they’ll rear up and come at you with those claws. A keeper down in South America got eviscerated that way (I believe she survived), and I’ve heard tell of someone who got a claw through their wrist when they got too close to an anesthetized animal who wasn’t all the way out.
    Then there was the keeper who got a sticky tongue all the way up his nose (and presumably into his sinuses)….

    A friend of mine ended up in the ER thanks to a tamandua. Punctures in the leg and hand. If it had been me that day, it probably would have gone all the way through my (thinner) hand.

    How do I get quotes in italics?

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  34. 34. llewelly 8:37 pm 08/12/2013

    <i> stuff you want italicized </i>

    Produces this:

    stuff you want italicized

    Link to this
  35. 35. llewelly 8:39 pm 08/12/2013

    A few more useful tidbits:
    Ampersand: &amp;
    Less than: &lt;
    Greater than: &gt;

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  36. 36. Yodelling Cyclist 8:56 pm 08/12/2013

    So, zoo keepers are like chemists? :-)

    As a chemist, I would like to point out that all our stories, in this day and age of safety audits, always start with, “so one day the GUY IN THE FUMEHOOD NEXT TO ME did something very stupid…”.

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  37. 37. Yodelling Cyclist 8:58 pm 08/12/2013

    We don’t admit to those fires being caused by ourselves. Oh good Lord no. Nor all those orphaned toxic chemicals which we pray will evaporate from the lab corner…

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  38. 38. Dartian 1:46 am 08/13/2013

    David: Obviously, it’s not always easy to establish afterwards that the victim was intentionally suicidal. Some cases were more likely just the result of plain stupidity and/or gross miscalculation. For example, the 37-year old woman who was killed by a cheetah at Olmense Zoo, Belgium, in 2007 probably didn’t attempt to kill herself (she hid in the zoo area and entered the cage after visiting hours were over); she apparently just thought that she could bond with the animal.

    However, there are indeed cases on record of people intentionally attempting (and succeeding) to kill themselves by approaching dangerous zoo animals. For example:

    -A zookeeper at Copenhagen Zoo, Denmark, who suffered from depression entered the tigers’ cage and was killed (2009).
    -Also at Copenhagen Zoo, a young man broke into the zoo at night and entered the tigers’ enclosure, where his remains were found the following day; suicide was strongly suspected by the police (2012).
    -A cleaner deliberately entered the tiger enclosure in Singapore Zoo and provoked the tigers to attack him – which they did; this happened in front of horrified zoo visitors who later said that the man didn’t make any effort to escape or defend himself as he was mauled to death (2008).
    -A zookeeper was killed by tigers in South Lakes Wild Animal Park, UK, officially by accident but under circumstances that strongly suggest suicide (2013).
    -A visitor jumped into the polar bear enclosure in Berlin Zoo in order to kill herself, but when the bears attacked her she apparently changed her mind and started to cry for help; she was eventually rescued – and she survived – but not before she was badly mauled by the bears (2009).

    There are many other cases where the reports include statements like “He/She was a very experienced keeper – we don’t understand how this could have happened” or “We don’t know why the victim had entered the cage”; incidents that aren’t officially classified as suicides but for which it’s hard to think of any alternative explanations either. This is especially so in the cases where the victim was an experienced member of the zoo’s staff with easy access to the animals’ cages.

    A side note: it seems that tigers are, by far, the most preferred predators of choice in these cases. Lions come a distant second.

    Link to this
  39. 39. David Marjanović 7:55 am 08/13/2013

    We don’t admit to those fires being caused by ourselves. Oh good Lord no.

    How about the very loud explosions? Or the stinkbombs? *toothy grin*

    A side note: it seems that tigers are, by far, the most preferred predators of choice in these cases. Lions come a distant second.

    Well, tigers are bigger, and throwing oneself to the lions may look a bit too much like trying to achieve martyrdom?

    Link to this
  40. 40. White Jenna 8:04 am 08/13/2013

    There are many other cases where the reports include statements like “He/She was a very experienced keeper – we don’t understand how this could have happened” or “We don’t know why the victim had entered the cage”; incidents that aren’t officially classified as suicides but for which it’s hard to think of any alternative explanations either. This is especially so in the cases where the victim was an experienced member of the zoo’s staff with easy access to the animals’ cages.

    Two words. Keeper. Error. Your day is filled with locks and doors, and you do most of your work in the same order, every time. You fall into a routine. And one day, you get distracted and forget to check a lock or door. This is why carnivore doors should have a second lock. This is why you walk two feet behind someone in an elephant barn and test the lock they just tested. But sometimes the worst happens. Even to experienced keepers. I obviously can’t say that none of them committed suicide, but I would think the number is *very* small.

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  41. 41. Yodelling Cyclist 8:36 am 08/13/2013

    How about the very loud explosions? Or the stinkbombs? *toothy grin*

    On a serious note, you do those sorts of things for a while until either you, or someone within the department has a particularly bad moment. Then you go home, wait for your hands to stop shaking, have a few big-boy drinks of the bravery juice and go back very, very careful.

    For me it was a guy using a Parr reactor just as I started my post graduacy (small steel reaction vessel charged to ~50 bar of hydrogen and a mess of organics being vigorously heated) when a weld suddenly let go, while he had his hands in the fumehood (so the sash up). Chunks of steel in the abdomen, hands ruined. He survived. We were all badly shaken. The next experimental campaign I got involved in required pyrophoric reagents (ignite on contact with oxygen or water) – small traces left on the exterior of needles used to transfer would ignite like candles while the syringes were still charged with reagent, and in the hands of the experimentalist. This was a normal thing, but I never quite got inured to it.

    I imagine zoo keepers must have some fun near miss stories…

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  42. 42. Dartian 9:21 am 08/13/2013

    I retract one of the cases I listed earlier; the case of the UK zookeeper apparently was an accident after all (although the zoo’s owner originally went out with public statements indicating otherwise). But the Danish keeper incident as well as the one in Singapore* were indeed ruled by the authorities to have been suicides. Similarly, the German woman later admitted to have jumped into the polar bears with the intention of ending her life**.

    * The incident was filmed and the footage can be found on YouTube – but I won’t link to it here.

    ** Footage of that, too, can be found online – but those interested will have to google it up themselves, sorry.

    Jenna:
    I would think the number is *very* small

    It surely is, if we’re talking absolute numbers of incidents. But proportionally it might be a different matter. It would be interesting to see some actual (preferably global) statistics.

    Link to this
  43. 43. Basandere 1:38 pm 08/13/2013

    Then there was the keeper who got a sticky tongue all the way up his nose (and presumably into his sinuses)….

    Eeeeek! I don’t think I can ever unthink that. ;} Thank you Jenna, that is the greatest piece of anteater trivia I’ve ever heard.
    But (sorry, still curious :) ): Why do you think the anteater would have done that? Just feeling aventurous/curious/hungry?

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  44. 44. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:21 pm 08/13/2013

    @White Jenna
    An employee of Hamburg zoo told me that they have small extra corridor linking inside and outside enclosures of carnivores. If one door is accidentally left open, another one keeps animals away.

    I also heard that animals lacking clear facial mimics (like bears, anteaters, tapirs) cause more accidents, because keepers cannot well understand their mood.

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  45. 45. White Jenna 7:33 pm 08/13/2013

    Eeeeek! I don’t think I can ever unthink that. ;} Thank you Jenna, that is the greatest piece of anteater trivia I’ve ever heard.
    But (sorry, still curious :) ): Why do you think the anteater would have done that? Just feeling aventurous/curious/hungry?

    My work here is done. :D Anteaters explore just about anything with their tongues. I once had one go to town probing down into my boots. I had to throw the socks away, as a trip through the washer couldn’t remove all the saliva.

    An employee of Hamburg zoo told me that they have small extra corridor linking inside and outside enclosures of carnivores. If one door is accidentally left open, another one keeps animals away.

    Yeah, you always want to have two doors and/or locks between you and dangerous animals at all times.

    I also heard that animals lacking clear facial mimics (like bears, anteaters, tapirs) cause more accidents, because keepers cannot well understand their mood.

    That’s really interesting. I hadn’t heard that. I guess it makes sense (since things like bared teeth are pretty universal), but one would hope that when you’re trained on those animals, you’re getting some instruction on their body language.

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  46. 46. Hai~Ren 11:12 pm 08/13/2013

    Oh yes, the incident at the Singapore Zoo was quite a traumatic experience for many people. Here’s an infographic from the local newspaper as to what happened:
    http://i.imgur.com/eG5VsXj.jpg

    Right now I’m wondering about the potential damage a Megatapirus could cause…

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  47. 47. Vasha 5:58 am 08/14/2013

    I used to work at an educational wildlife center. The great horned owls there had already attacked two keepers, mauling one to the point of needing many stitches. There was no provision for separating yourself from the owls when you went into their enclosure to clean it. They would hiss and clack their beaks threateningly. The two owls usually sat on opposite sides of the enclosure so that you couldn’t keep an eye on both; you’d watch one and imagine the other silently dropping down on you. Eesh.

    The single most aggressive animal at the center was a male mallard duck, who pecked my ankles nearly every day. But he wasn’t able to do any damage, it barely even hurt.

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  48. 48. David Marjanović 6:07 am 08/14/2013

    That’s really interesting. I hadn’t heard that. I guess it makes sense (since things like bared teeth are pretty universal), but one would hope that when you’re trained on those animals, you’re getting some instruction on their body language.

    The point here is that the more solitary a species is, the less body language it has in the first place. Our expectations based on humans, dogs or even cats are hopeless overestimates when it comes to bears.

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  49. 49. Dartian 7:17 am 08/14/2013

    David:
    the more solitary a species is, the less body language it has in the first place

    I don’t think that sociality alone is a sufficient explanation. For example, most felids aren’t particularly social, but still they all have much more ‘expressive’ faces than, for example, hyenas (which are typically more social than felids are)*. Similarly, equids have a wider range of facial and other body language signals than elephants, although the latter are every bit as social as the former (and probably even more so).

    * Of course, there are other kinds of body language than facial expressions – but we humans tend to focus on faces.

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  50. 50. AndrewD 2:59 pm 08/14/2013

    Completly and utterly off topic but have you seen this Darren?
    http://all-geo.org/highlyallochthonous/2013/08/is-your-child-experimenting-with-geology/
    (that goes for David and others)

    Link to this
  51. 51. David Marjanović 7:04 pm 08/14/2013

    Heh. Thanks for that link. :-)

    Link to this
  52. 52. naishd 7:17 pm 08/14/2013

    Re: comment # 50… alas, yes, this has been posted to my facebook wall about 30 times and we (at NOCS, University of Southampton) have had a printed copy on the office door for a few months now :) But thanks…

    Darren

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  53. 53. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:33 pm 08/14/2013

    @White Jenna
    I doubt whether many keepers receive formal training about body language of her/his animals.

    Interesting may be, that when I was young, after reading books like Konrad Lorenz and Karl Lindblad, I tried not only watching for body language of zoo animals, but also, as a zoo visitor, communicating myself (when there was no other visitors). I tried to imitate playful movements of dog in front of wolves and wolverines. Their response was extremely positive – they immediately got interested, became playful, and we engaged in a little running together along the fence. I had an impression that animals are suddenly extremely happy and relieved, that one stupid human being finally started speaking language they understand.

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  54. 54. White Jenna 8:56 pm 08/14/2013

    @Jerzy
    I don’t know what your definition of “formal” is, but it’s always been my experience that when a keeper (or intern) gets trained on a new run/string/area, they’re taught the animal’s personal and species specific behaviors along with the daily routine. Especially if it’s a new species for said keeper. You can make some broad comparisons (tigers and lions are totally different cats, but they still speak “cat”), and you obviously pick up lots of information from personal observation, “uh, is this normal?” conversations, and from reading and watching anything animal based. Also, these days a two or four year degree is required for almost all keeper jobs in the States, so odds are good that Animal Behavior was studied at some point.

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  55. 55. Dartian 12:33 am 08/15/2013

    Jerzy:
    Karl Lindblad

    Jan Lindblad.

    Link to this
  56. 56. mbaronj 1:33 pm 08/15/2013

    Here’s an anecdotal case from here in Toledo, OH- we had someone killed in ’72 by the polar bears when he entered their enclosure on what should probably go down in drug history as the “worst trip ever”. Also, he was apparently an acquaintance of my mother.

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  57. 57. Hydrarchos 9:00 pm 08/15/2013

    Karl Shuker has, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, also blogged on tapirs recently – http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/brevets-black-malayan-tapir-asian.html – and makes a rather amazing claim at the end that “in the belief that such a creature would prove exceedingly popular as a pet in the USA, biological engineers have recently attempted to create a dwarf version of the Malayan tapir”!

    In the light of this post, that sounds like a VERY bad idea (although I have to wonder what exactly a “biological engineer” is, and how they were planning to create dwarf tapirs…)

    I’m also wondering about the supposed exclusive herbivory of tapirs. It seems a bit like overkill for a leaf-eater to have teeth and jaws capable of biting all the way through the limb of something around half as big as itself. Is it solely about defence against predators, or could tapirs be eating things much tougher than leaves?

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  58. 58. Vasha 12:18 am 08/16/2013

    [C]ould tapirs be eating things much tougher than leaves?

    Well, if they’re anything like rhinos for example, they could be eating dry, fibery foliage and twigs. That takes some powerful mastication.

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  59. 59. Zoovolunteer 4:37 am 08/16/2013

    In one of Gerald Durrells’ books about the early days of Jersey zoo, he mentioned that their tapirs proved extremely fond of sardines of all things, and wondered whether this meant that tapirs sometimes went fishing in dry season shallow pools. A captive setting is no proof of course, but seeing as even hippos are known to scavenge on occasion I see no reason why tapirs might not do the same.

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  60. 60. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:47 pm 08/16/2013

    @White Jenna
    Well good zoo you have there! One zoo I know (which I will keep nameless) it is much less formal. People naturally care to know behavior of elephants, big cats, giraffe, apes and other obviously dangerous animals. But for smaller hoofed animals and carnivores it’s essentially up to keeper’s personal interest if he knows or wishes to know normal behavior of animals.

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  61. 61. llewelly 2:55 pm 08/17/2013

    A housecat-sized tapir would be adorable!

    Surely an even bigger hit than the house hippo!

    As for biting, well, I’m often told rabbits make good pets, and they are sure cute, but those teeth can take a finger off.

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  62. 62. leecris 7:23 pm 08/25/2013

    Jenna:
    “I would think the number is *very* small”

    Dartian:
    “It surely is, if we’re talking absolute numbers of incidents. But proportionally it might be a different matter. It would be interesting to see some actual (preferably global) statistics.”

    It would be interesting if we could examine global captive-animal-related death statistics – but it’s difficult to do that even in a record-keeping country like the United States. Injuries, including fatal injuries, are coded on death certificates and in statistics based on the International Classification of Diseases manual currently in use. When I was studying, it was ICD-9; I think ICD-10 is being used now. The problem here lies in who investigates the death and fills out the death certificate. If the county coroner is also a medical doctor, the data is probably quite accurate. In rural areas of my state, Colorado, coroner is an elected local political position, and may be someone with a law-enforcement background with no medical knowledge at all. These death certificates usually describe in detail the circumstances of the death, but do not necessarily allow a neat assignment of the cause of death according to the ICD. If the data is unreliable in the United States, can you imagine the lack of information available in other countries without the infrastructure to report and examine death statistics?

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  63. 63. William Miller 1:52 am 09/2/2013

    Giant otter fatality? Wow…

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  64. 64. Lisa Roberts 10:23 am 10/28/2013

    Mr. Naish,
    Over the years you have referenced the attack at the OKC Zoo with your comments & in the past you have made many jokes at my expense. Finally, I am responding. I feel if you are going to discuss me you should have at least some of your facts correct.

    My arm was not “bitten off.” I was also de-gloved with the blood vessels & nerves loosing attachment at the level of the wrist. My dominate, left arm was broken, the surrounding flesh gave way after prolonged thrashing & pulling~ as if I were a rag doll~ then my arm was ripped off above bicep leaving those nerves & blood vessels still attached, then stretched & dangling past my knee.

    She came down on my throat, shattering my larynx into three segments & three broken bones in my neck. She crushed my face in her jaws, tearing off my right ear, biting through & through crushing & breaking off my teeth, crushing my nose, & resulting in five facial breaks & horrendous nerve damage & some loss of vision in my right eye.

    She dragged, thrashed, tossed, pummeled me for between 8 & 13 minutes, with repeated attacks provoked by a loud outdoor telephone ringer located in her enclosure & by on lookers trying to raise a loud overhead “garage” door mechanism which set her off, their screaming, & other actions. No vet or animal personal ever responded to the attack.

    She picked me up & thrashed me by the rib cage resulting in nine broken bones & with multiple breaks, two more ribs being snapped off the sternum, and leaving two huge sucking chest wounds both back & front of my chest. She drug me around by the left thigh leaving a 16cm tract straight through my thigh. She crushed my right foot breaking it most severely at the tarsal-meta tarsal joint. She picked me up & threw me across the enclosure by the flesh of my upper right hip which she successfully removed, she drug me around by my right arm leaving a large bite wound on the back of my arm & a four inch scar through my arm pit. She caused a particularly dangerous gash & tear in the front, right hip/thigh area that exposed my femoral artery, even unsheathing the artery~ which was extremely life threatening. She damaged my vegas nerve, stomach, & intestines resulting in three separate surgeries for bowl re-sectioning & a making it necessary for me to sleep sitting up due to swallowing difficulties. All & all, I suffered 23 broken bones.

    I have endured 48 surgeries & endure having to live my life like this, as well as being fodder for your & others comments. The attack was unprovoked. I was in the doorway, other keepers went directly in with her, but I didn’t. I was following protocol. I can tell you all about it sometime, but for now, I guess I just felt the need to clue you in about some of my actual injuries. This list is just off the top of my head. Now, perhaps, you may better discuss me.

    Lisa Morehead Roberts

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  65. 65. naishd 10:37 am 10/28/2013

    Dear Lisa – thank you for leaving such a lengthy and detailed comment containing so much information (hardly any of which I’ve seen or heard before). It sounds like an extraordinary encounter, I don’t know what to say other than that I’m really sorry you had to endure it. I really hope your life gets back to normal as best as possible.

    Obviously, my comment (here and in previous articles) about the arm damage is based on what’s been reported: I didn’t know it was inaccurate and apologise for repeating it. Also, the main reason for the interest here (both from myself and from various Tet Zoo commenters) comes from our interest in the power and aggressive capabilities of tapirs – there certainly was no impetus to ever make fun of you or make light of what happened. If things came across that way (I didn’t realise that they had), I can only apologise, sincerely.

    Thank you again for commenting. This is an ‘old’ article now, but I am going to direct interested parties to your comment.

    Darren

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  66. 66. llewelly 10:49 am 10/28/2013

    Lisa, thank you so much for responding, especially with such length and such detail.

    I am sorry you were hurt so terribly, and sorry you were hurt by the comments here, though I cannot apologize for anyone except myself.

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  67. 67. greg_t_laden 10:55 am 10/28/2013

    I would like to add that the version of this horrible incident that I and others saw on the news was not nearly as detailed as this, and the “arm bitten off” description is all I ever saw in mainstream media.

    Lisa, you obviously went through a horrific experience, and I’m really sorry that happened to you. It is very important that your story be understood accurately and the versions highly filtered and made inaccurate via MSM be ignored, so thanks very much for sharing this.

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  68. 68. Lisa Roberts 11:00 am 10/28/2013

    Thank you, and already I’m feeling regret for posting. I have remained silent all these years. Today is just one of those days when things just caught up with me. Apologies.

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  69. 69. llewelly 11:56 am 10/28/2013

    Please don’t regret posting that comment; it must have been difficult for you, but corrections are invaluable to us, and your comment is very detailed and interesting.

    Link to this
  70. 70. msphinx94 1:04 pm 10/28/2013

    No regrets! Truth is what is needed here. Scanning the posts above I surmise most people believe an animal born/housed in captivity equals domestication. Very untrue. They are wild animals born/housed in captivity. Through positive reinforcement training, desensitization and habituation will they allow close proximity with humans. However, never should there affiliative behavior be taken for granted they will not become aggressive w/o apparent behavioral cues; they will. Also to note, play or affiliative behavior of one species can kill a lesser agile and assuming species-us. Never let your guard down and working with animals in captivity is not only physical but a mental challenge, keep your senses vigilant. It’s very rewarding and awesome to work with exotics but also an occupational hazard!

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  71. 71. Heteromeles 1:20 pm 10/28/2013

    Please don’t apologize for speaking up, Lisa. While it is graphic testimony, it’s good to have an accurate account available. I suspect your comments will be referenced by zookeepers for as long as this site is up, and they would have had no other way of knowing.

    Link to this

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