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Animal Escapes Raise Awareness About the Importance of Zoo Safety

Posted in on Mon, Nov 22, 2010

Des Plaines, IL (November 22, 2010) — With nearly 300 zoos in the US and more than 1,000 worldwide, zoos represent a form of entertainment and educational activity that has been around for centuries. Members of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) work to ensure safety for zoo workers, the animals and visitors. ASSE members, occupational safety, health and environmental professionals work in all industries protecting people, property and the environment, including zoos.

ASSE members who work at zoos, including those in Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C., aim to protect not only the staff who work directly with animals each day, but also guests who visit the facilities. From the design of animal habitats, to the procedures in place to ensure the safety of all, a zoo safety professional’s work is critical to the success of the park.

During the past decade, multiple animal escapes have been featured in the news, ranging from seemingly harmless small animals, to much larger and more dangerous animals such as tigers. To prevent animal escapes, there are several important elements of zoo construction and procedures in place to help keep these events from occurring, ASSE members note. One of the primary ways in which animal escapes are prevented is 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.

According to Mary Ciesluk, former assistant director of public safety at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL, “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. 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 exhibit, called “Great Bear Wilderness,” is a 7.5 acre enclosure and recreates North American wilderness to provide animals with realistic habitats. Additionally, this exhibit adheres to Manitoba Standards, which is the set of regulations for the best possible housing of polar bears in a controlled environment.

ASSE Vice President of Professional Development Trish Ennis is the director of workplace safety for the Denver Zoological Foundation. She stated, “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.”

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, called the Asian Tropics exhibit, is under construction and 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, and 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., notes that zoological parks also 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 from hazards. 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 are also 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.

Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the oldest professional safety organization and is committed to protecting people, property and the environment. Its more than 32,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members lead, manage, supervise, research and consult on safety, health, transportation and environmental issues in all industries, government, labor, health care and education. For more information please go to

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