Thursday, February 9, 2012

Zookeepers Faking it? All in a Day's Work.

Today, Mark Percy reported a Fake Rhino Escape on BBC News. A Tokyo zoo was filmed running an animal escape drill complete with a cool papier mache life-size rhino costume. I had myself a chuckle at the video. I do have to correct Mr. Percy, though. Faking animals for escape drills is an expected part of most zookeeper's job descriptions. It was included in all of mine for all of the zoos I worked at. This has become a common and accepted way to ensure that zoos have a workable plan in place for actual animal escapes, and that all the employees fully understand and are comfortable with their assigned rolls.

I can tell you from experience that having an organized plan in place, and running simulation drills has helped to capture escaped animals quickly and without injury to the animal or the zoo visitors. Once, we had a chimp scale her exhibit wall during a fight with her troupe. She escaped during visitor hours. The zoo staff had visitors safely locked in buildings throughout the park and had the chimp contained safely in less than thirty minutes. Pretty amazing. Chimps might look cute, but they are one of the most dangerous animals. Not only are they smart, but they are strong enough to rip your limbs off, they have huge teeth, and they can be highly aggressive when they are scared or angry. I ended up clearing visitors from the area where the chimp was running around loose, aggressive posturing and challenging people. I was pretty freaked out to be one of the unlucky ones in the wrong place at the right time. Not much freaks a zookeeper out. Not if they are any good at their job.

Anyway, each zoo's escape plan is usually written and tailor made for that facility. It often breaks the animals and escape protocols down into categories according to the danger factor. So there are changes to the rules for those species housed at a facility that are listed as dangerous and those listed as intermediate or non-dangerous. For example, you would not see keepers approaching a polar bear to poke it with sticks like you did the "rhino" in this video. In fact, I'm not sure all zoos would use this method for their rhinos, and it would probably vary according to the animal's individual personalities. I've known rhinos I could pat like a dog and others that might leave me with a stub if I tried it. 

Anyway, at my last zoo we would get tapped by the director or one of the curators to become part of a secret plan to run an escape drill for the rest of the staff. Whoever was tapped would be given the species they would play and some basic parameters of the drill.  You might be told, tomorrow you will be a gorilla who escapes at 8:35 in the morning. You will attack Jim who will play the injured keeper to drill the EMT staff at the same time. The rest then becomes up to those playing the role. The animal roll players are expected to behave as they think the real animal might.

At the start of a drill, the rest of the staff would hear an outgoing radio call (we all carried hand-held radios on our belts) that sounded something like this, "This is an escape drill. This is Keeper Wallace. There is an escaped female gorilla. I repeat, we have a gorilla escape drill in progress. She was last seen in the vacinity of the gorilla visitor overlook running west. I no longer have a visual on her. Again this is an escape drill. Zoocom did you copy?"

And from there, the main communications people would take over and responses would begin to roll in from the different teams like the vets, the safety team, and the weapons team. The keepers in each area would begin to follow a complicated instruction list for their particular section of the zoo that we were expected to memorize. Every area had their list of duties, and we were expected to follow all of them to the letter as if an actual animal had escaped. 

Sometimes, having humans playing the animals proved challenging. We knew to look for someone wearing an orange vest with the name of the animal taped to it during drills. No elaborate animal costumes were used.  During one drill, a good friend of mine played the roll of a gorilla. Being a  smart a** of grand proportions, he climbed way up in a tree, which isn't usual for a gorilla, but also could happen if one were scared. It took us a long time to discover his hiding place and most of us had walked right below him several times looking. Boy did we feel stupid. 

Human error is always a factor. Once, our animal actor, pretending to be an escaped Hamadrayas baboon, took himself off in the woods to hide, but he forgot to turn his hand-held radio on. The zoo was in a rural area with large tracts of forest surrounding it. In the meantime, an actual baboon escaped inside the holding building while they were drilling the staff on the shift procedures. So, the fake escape had to be called off because it became a real escape. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. Our fake animal couldn't be located because he couldn't hear his radio and nobody had time to go find him. The real animal was contained by giving it food incentive, so it eventually ran back into an empty cage. No harm, no foul. But, we were left wondering what to do about the long lost human. Eventually, groups of us went out into the woods to yell for him and bring him home. Lots of lessons were learned that day and some major changes were made to the animal escape policy, too. 

So, if you want to work at as a zookeeper, know that animal acting might be required of you, and the ability to go with the flow is always a plus. Be prepared for the unexpected!

Many thanks to Andi Lea, my friend and collaborator over at The Ravens Crossing, who sent me the link to the BBC report.

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