During the past decade, multiple animal escapes have been featured in the news, ranging from the small and seemingly harmless to the much larger and dangerous animals such as tigers. To prevent animal escapes, several important elements of zoo construction and procedures must be in place, ASSE members stressed.

Habitat Design

Animal escapes can be prevented through habitat design. U.S. zoos are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act and nonprofit organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) strive to provide support and guidance for successfully managing zoos to ensure the safety and health of employees, guests and the animals.

“Zoos are unique because zoos have a wide range of issues to consider. Animal health and safety is important, and the health and safety of employees and guests are also very important,” explained Mary Ciesluk, former assistant director of public safety at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. “Animal enclosures are designed very carefully to meet all regulations and ensure that our guests are never endangered during their visit to the zoo. Enclosures are designed to appear as though animals are close to spectators, when in reality, there are fences, moats and many other tactics used to create this visual illusion.”

In May of 2010, Ciesluk saw months of work come to fruition when the Brookfield Zoo opened a new, completely renovated enclosure for its polar bears, grizzly bears, bison, wolves and eagles. The new, 7.5-acre enclosure recreates the North American wilderness to provide animals with realistic habitats. Additionally, this exhibit adheres to Manitoba Standards, the set of regulations for the best possible housing of polar bears in a controlled environment.

ASSE Vice President of Professional Development Trish Ennis, the director of workplace safety for the Denver Zoological Foundation, added: “Challenges to safety professionals working in zoos are directly related to both exhibit design and the age of many zoo facilities. Retrofitting older exhibits for safety concerns can be challenging and includes seeking ways to install fall protection and access/egress routes that meet present safety standards. Animals living in the exhibits pose additional challenges, as installing safety equipment inside exhibits can interfere with animal safety.”

Fall and Fire Protection

In 2005, the Denver Zoo completed a new, state-of-the-art African exhibit called Predator Ridge. The exhibit has many safety features built-in to assist with moving animals from outdoor to indoor exhibits and performing daily animal activities.

Another new exhibit under construction in Denver, the Asian Tropics exhibit, will be a world-class exhibit for Asian elephants and other Asian animal species like the tapir and the rhino. Fall protection anchor points and other protective devices are being designed into the project to provide excellent employee safety. Furthermore, the exhibit is being built to the highest AZA standards for protected contact for workers while working with elephants.

Mary Winkler, an occupational health and safety specialist for the Smithsonian Institution and National Zoo in Washington, D.C., noted that zoological parks work to incorporate the latest fire protection standards to ensure that fire does not compromise any containment barriers that are meant to protect the public, animal welfare and zoo staff.

Designing new enclosures and upgrading older zoo facilities is key to successfully ensuring they are adequately equipped in the event of a fire emergency. Early warning fire detection and alarm systems are monitored around the clock, which allows for an immediate response by first responders. Automatic sprinklers also are installed in animal buildings and will activate to contain and extinguish fires, protecting animals and their enclosures.

Overall, the safety and health of employees, guests and animals are critical in the zoo environment. A great deal of time, design and safety precautions must be taken to ensure that employees and guests return home safely, injury and illness-free to their families each day while animals remain safely in their enclosures.