August 4, 2008

Getting Nose to Nose With a Grizzly

By David Peterson, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Aug. 4--"Get closer than nature intended." That's the Minnesota Zoo's playful come-on this summer, drawing swarms of people to a new exhibit designed to bring your nose to within inches of a massive grizzly with horror-movie claws.

The $30 million Russia's Grizzly Coast addition has fast-forwarded the Apple Valley zoo into a 21st-century world of barrier-free immersive exhibits, aimed at creating the feeling of entering the animals' own habitat.

What the crowds don't see, however, is a parallel world of enhanced security -- prompted in part by a heightened sensitivity to the dangers zoos can present.

Caches of weapons are hidden throughout the zoo, with shoot-to-kill orders if a man-eating animal were to turn up on a visitor pathway. Law enforcement agencies have been asked to be prepared to hunt down escaped animals with technology designed for fugitives. And the zoo has rigged its tiger exhibit with an alarm system designed to auto-dial its staff in case a storm topples a tree onto the perimeter fence, allowing a tiger to vault over it.

"A cell phone sits at my bedside all night long," said Tony Fisher, manager of the zoo's animal collection. "And if it goes off, I'm comin' in. We've never had a tiger get out, but it could happen."

Zoo officials across the nation have never been more aware how close they are to tragedy. At the Dallas Zoo four years ago, an escaped gorilla went on a 40-minute rampage. In December, San Francisco saw a landmark event in the history of accredited American zoos: the first-ever death of a visitor caused by an escaped animal.

In that case, the animal was a tiger.

The Minnesota Zoo stresses that the process of installing alarms -- the tiger enclosure being first, with others to come -- was begun before the San Francisco tragedy. But officials agree that the death got their attention.

"You do focus more on these things now," said Fisher. "There's more interest from people we work with, as well," such as police officers nearby. "Everyone is a bit more focused."

The zoo has asked law enforcement agencies in the area to be prepared to bring in advanced technology designed to pinpoint criminals in case any man-eating animals make it out into the hundreds of acres of woods that separate them from the suburban subdivisions of Apple Valley.

"Finding the animal would be the biggest problem," Fisher said. "Working out ways to detect them by body heat is something we've had in process for years, but San Francisco has caused more interest by all parties in refining that."

One theory holds that advances in animal management, with better nutrition and more emphasis on preserving wildness, is yielding a new breed of lions and tigers and bears capable of surpassing barriers that would have been adequate 50 years ago.

"In fact we're dealing with that right now," said Dr. Bruce Beehler, deputy director of animal management and health at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which pioneered the barrier-free approach decades ago. "We have a jaguar that is exceptionally large and agile and strong, and we are not convinced that our existing tree guards will keep him from climbing and getting where he is not supposed to be. He may be able to shinny up the metal cladding. ... We cannot just say, 'A snow leopard only jumps 12 feet.' You need to build in safety factors like an engineer designing a bridge."

'Faith that I'm safe'

At certain points in the Grizzly Coast exhibit, there doesn't seem to be anything between you and the grizzlies.

"I'm not really sure what's protecting me right now," Rachel Williamson, of Minneapolis, confessed one afternoon as she visited with her 3-year-old son. "I have complete faith that I'm safe, because this is a brand-new, state-of-the-art exhibit. I assume there's some kind of valley somewhere."

There is: a 12-foot-wide moat. A trip to the roof, offering vantage points a visitor doesn't normally get, causes a grizzly to glance up curiously -- and reveals a hidden infrastructure that allows for a heavy snowfall to be plowed out of the moat, lest the bears take advantage of a suddenly shorter wall to go AWOL.

At other points, the exhibit has been engineered so that huge lumbering grizzlies with what Fisher calls "Freddy Krueger claws" will commune nose to nose with young kids, with nothing but glass between them.

That closeness is in fact "a huge engineering feat -- engineering that's hard to find, to be honest with you -- with up to seven layers of glass" all melting into one another so as to appear to be almost not there, said Karen Marshall, of the Philadelphia-based zoo design firm CLR Design, which is helping create a new polar bear exhibit at the Como Zoo in St. Paul.

Kids visiting the Apple Valley zoo have been known to wonder what would happen if all three bears suddenly hurled themselves at the glass -- and that's a question zoo officials ask themselves as well, said Milwaukee's Beehler.

"To simulate 500 pounds of lion crashing against the glass at 35 mph, as fast as a male lion can run, we set up an experiment shooting padded steel into glass, again and again and again. The interior laminate cracked -- but it was still structurally sound."

Other than human error -- a door left unlocked -- the greatest source of danger for the Minnesota Zoo may be a sudden storm uprooting a tree, which pushes down a fence around one of the zoo's "shoot-to-kill" animals, those considered so dangerous that there are standing orders to gun them down if any ever gets loose. The caches of weapons are hidden around the premises for that purpose.

The zoo has had some practice with its new alarm: the self-designed system has had some hiccups, including a shakedown phase in which wireless dialers had to be replaced with hard-wired ones because they kept triggering false alarms.

"We had a false alarm at 3 a.m.," Fisher said, "and we had people here within four to five minutes. You know, there's a misconception that zoo animals are pets. They are far from pets. If you get within an enclosure, you are food to them, plain and simple. Even keepers are not their 'friends.' There is no bond. They wouldn't think twice about eating you."

David Peterson --952-882-9023


--The Cleveland Plain Dealer's look at zoo tiger security:

--The Minnesota Zoo's marketing of its scary bears:


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