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Deadly Lion Attack Highlights Zoo Worker Safety

Jan. 22, 2019, 11:15 AM

The fatal lion attack on a 22-year-old who was cleaning a supposedly empty lion enclosure at a North Carolina animal sanctuary in late December is renewing focus on zoos’ protection of animal handlers.

Zoos must figure out how safety practices work with unpredictable animal and human behavior, zoo professionals told Bloomberg Law.

“You are dealing with dynamic beings at all times,” said Jonathan Miot, who oversees courses in animal care as director of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo near Gainesville, Fla.

Fatal attacks at zoos are rare—four between 2011 and 2017—according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimates about 6,700 people are employed by U.S. zoos as animal caretakers and veterinarian staff.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has rules protecting workers from metal teeth on rotating gears and requirements to lock machines in safe positions during repairs, the agency doesn’t have specific rules protecting zoo employees from animal bites or mandating locking procedures for animal cages.

Let’s Stay Apart

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, based in Silver Spring, Md., sets accreditation standards—including safety—for 215 wildlife parks in the United States. The North Carolina sanctuary, the Conservators Center in Burlington isn’t among the accredited zoos.

The association’s standards are always open for review by the group’s accreditation committee, President Dan Ashe told Bloomberg Law. There aren’t specific standards for handling big cats, but current practice for handling large mammals is at least one barrier between workers and animals that aren’t restrained.

“I can’t think of a single person who feels they would be safe inside an enclosure with a big cat,” Ashe said.

Miot said that though the Gainesville zoo doesn’t have large cats, its policy requires that at least two locked doors separate a potentially dangerous animal from caretakers.

OSHA Enforcement

When OSHA or its state counterparts cite an employer for an animal attack, they often use the “general duty clause,” a law requiring employers to provide workplaces free of known hazards that can be corrected.

North Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has opened an investigation into the Dec. 30 death, said Mary Katherine Revels, public information officer for the agency. The state has six months to issue citations.

According to a Conservators Center release, an intern, Alexandra Black, was helping to clean an lion enclosure when she was attacked by a lion that was supposed to be in a separate locked area.

A spokesman for the center wouldn’t discuss the incident with Bloomberg Law. The center is awaiting reports from North Carolina OSHA and the federal Department of Agriculture, which regulates how animals are treated.

The best-known federal OSHA case began in 2010 when a killer whale at SeaWorld of Florida near Orlando grabbed a trainer by her hair, pulled her into the water and she drowned.

OSHA issued a citation, saying a barrier should have separated the trainer and the orca. SeaWorld fought the citation, eventually losing the case, SeaWorld of Fla. LLC v. Perez, in a 2014 decision by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

OSHA also has used the clause to cite the Animals of Montana zoo for the 2012 fatal grizzly bear attack on a worker cleaning a cage while the bear was inside the enclosure. In 2016, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma was cited for allowing workers to be in physical contact with lions and tigers.

Elephant Isn’t in the Room

The Association for Zoos and Aquarium’s Ashe said safety requirements were less stringent a decade ago. For example, handlers often walked and stood near elephants.

A string of deaths and injuries prompted reconsideration of the practice in 2011 and the association issued new guidelines calling for a barrier between handlers and elephants, Ashe said. That requirement forced many zoos that wanted to keep their accreditation to modify or build new elephant enclosures.

OSHA records show at least a dozen elephant handlers died between 1984 and 2011. Investigation summaries reveal that in many of these cases, the elephant knocked the handler to the ground and then crushed the handler with its head or feet. In some cases, the elephant may have been startled by another elephant or the sudden movement of a handler.

While association members are required to follow the elephant handling standard, the mandate doesn’t extend to nonmembers. In 2014, a handler working alone at an unaccredited sanctuary died after an elephant stepped on him.

Of the approximately 2,800 facilities of all sizes licensed by the Department of Agriculture to exhibit wild animals, less than 10 percent are association members.

Lewis Greene, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s senior vice president of animal care and conservation in Ohio, has spent 40 years working with wildlife.

More zoos are requiring staff to work in pairs, instead of alone, to prevent mistakes, Greene told Bloomberg Law. Other zoo professionals said training new zookeepers to work with animals begins with small creatures not likely to cause harm—only the most experienced animal handlers oversee large cats and elephants.

“Until we can figure out how to eliminate the human element, there will always be the chance of a mistake,” Greene said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at