DANGER AT THE ZOO: Weapons Response Teams

    Jurassic Park - Universal Pictures

    Last Saturday, Cincinnati Zoo officials shot and killed a 17 year-old western lowland gorilla after it threatened a toddler who had fallen into the moat surrounding the exhibit (the child was later released from the hospital basically unharmed). Aside from the sensationalism brought on by various media reports, I was curious about the policies and procedures in place to handle dangerous animal situations at zoos and animal parks around the world. Thankfully, zoos accredited by organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have ‘Weapons Teams’ trained to use deadly force in the event of an animal escape or to prevent death or serious harm.


    Would you take this shot?

    Although the procedures followed by the ‘weapons teams’ are standardized, the firearms used appear to be chosen by the individual zoos and/or the leader of each team. Open source information points to a combination of 12 gauge shotguns and high-powered rifles being on hand at most major zoos.

    From a story in the St Petersburg Times: http://www.sptimes.com/2006/08/24/Tampabay/Zookeeper_likely_to_f.shtml

    The team armed themselves with four guns from a locked cabinet kept in the general curator’s office. Salisbury carried a 12-gauge shotgun. The remaining staff carried two .375 rifles and a 30.06 rifle.

    Zoo employees also train and qualify with local and state law enforcement agencies.

    From a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune (Trib LIVE): http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/7941546-74/zoo-police-animal

    Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar said police officers and zoo workers went through training immediately after the incident Nov. 4, 2012, when 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh was killed. Bucar said police don’t carry weaponry needed to bring down a large animal in the event of a similar incident. They don’t know enough about animal behavior to shoot an animal, he said.

    Various standardized practices from around the world:

    North Carolina Zoo (From the American Association of Zookeepers);

    Weapons Team Management

    • Identify team members (need enough to always have two on duty at any time)
    • Basic safety and marksmanship training with local law enforcement
    • Weapons selection and maintenance
    • Clearly defined eligibility and qualification requirements
    • Range qualification at least twice per year
    • Clearly defined weapons discharge criteria
    • Identified program leader
    • Range leader qualifications and training

    Jungle Cat World, Ontario, Canada

    Radio Codes and Message Format

    • Code Red: Dangerous animal escape (eg- mature lion, tiger, etc.)
    • Code Blue: Hazardous animal escape (eg- bobcat, spider monkey, etc.)
    • Code Yellow: Non threat animal escape (eg- kangaroo, deer, etc.)
    • Code Green: Animal escape drill
    • All Clear: Self-explanatory (can only be issued by the Senior Keeper or Management)

    The Shooter

    Only the Director or Emergency Coordinator can issue the command to kill an escaped animal. The
    reason to do so are as follows:

    1. Human injury or loss of life
    2. Threat of human injury or loss of life
    3. Animal has breached the parameter fence surrounding the zoo
    4. Only individuals who have been trained and are authorized/licensed to use firearms may do so.
      They will have the keys to the locked gun cabinet.
    5. Always make sure that firearms are on safety and handled with extreme caution. The use of a killing
      weapon must always be tempered by the potential to endanger human life.
    6. Whenever possible, the shooter should stay in a vehicle when approaching the animal.
    7. Never run after the animal. It’s certain that you can’t outrun it. You will be out of breath, which will
      not allow you to have a steady hand.
    8. Make sure you have a good clean shot. Be aware of what is in front and behind your target.
    9. If you must shoot, shoot to kill. If you do not feel you are capable of doing this, relinquish the
      responsibility to another qualified shooter (if one is available)

    British and Irish Association of Zoos

    Training/ Continued Development:

    It is absolutely crucial that staff licensed to use firearms undergo sufficient initial training to ensure that they are completely familiar with the weapons they are likely to use, the legislation governing the acquisition use and storage of these weapons and that they have a comprehensive understanding of the risks of using these firearms in a built up environment and or public place. Therefore this initial training must include the elements detailed below and competency against each of these criteria must be measured:

    • Rifle/ Shotgun Safety
    • Law Relating to Firearms
    • Rifle/ Shotgun Performance
    • Practical Safety/ Weapon Handling
    • Shot placement
    • Live fire qualification
    • Communications

    Bob Chastain, President of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

    Often, people are surprised by the fact that the Zoo has a firearms team. As an accredited zoo, and because of our moral obligation, we are required to have a plan in place and the skills necessary to contain a dangerous animal that has escaped. Our firearms team is made up of Zoo staff from a variety of departments and the team trains year-round in the National Forest outside of Woodland Park and at other gun ranges. Each member is required to pass a yearly qualification and all are skilled at responding to dangerous situations.

    From Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy, Volume 7 – by Eric Miller and Murray E. Fowler:


    If you haven’t seen the Cincinnati video, here it is (disturbing, but not graphic):

    My thoughts:

    • It’s too early to place any blame, but it is safe to say that the boy was too close to the edge of the gorilla environment.
    • I wouldn’t be filming this interaction. I would hope that I would be either shooting or jumping into the moat.

    What do you think? Do you pack enough gun to put down a 450 pound gorilla? Even if you do, are you trained, skilled and confident enough to take the shot?


    Editor In Chief- TFB
    LE – Silencers – Science
    [email protected]