One of my earliest memories as a zookeeper is a tense moment as an elephant keeper at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. One of my duties at that time in the early 1970’s was to help walk five African elephants some 200 yards from their exhibit yard to their night barn at the end of the day. They walked trunk-to-tail through a pasture occupied by zebra, giraffe, and other hoofed stock without incident – except on those occasions when the 9-year-old bull, Bwana, decided to break out of line. His usual tactic was to run a few yards away, turn toward his handlers with his ears fanned out, and dare us to approach him. On those evenings when I was the lead handler, it was my job to slowly walk toward him, calming him with the command “Bwana steady”, grab the 6,000 pound animal by the tusk, and tell him to “move up” and “come in line”. My hands would tremble and my heart would thump as I considered what I would do if he refused. He never did. It was only later in my career, after numerous reports of elephants killing their handlers that I came to appreciate just how much danger I was really in.
I was reminded of my close calls a few weeks ago when I learned of the death of the 24-year-old intern at a California wildlife sanctuary. Dianna Hanson had a degree in biology, had worked with big cats in Africa, and was living her dream working with wild animals. Those of us in the profession know how dangerous that dream can really be. We are in daily contact with animals that can kill us – big cats, bears, elephants, killer whales, venomous snakes – and we wouldn’t have it any other way. It is what we do. These animals depend on us for their survival and we accept the inherent risk that goes with daily contact.
There are no words that can assuage the anguish of a parent who has lost a child too soon, but I applaud the parents of Dianna Hanson, who are reported in the media to have said “she died doing what she loves”, putting this down to a tragic accident. Most zoos, especially the accredited ones, are removing the keepers from direct contact with dangerous animals – and that is as it should be – but accidents are still going to happen. A door will be left unlocked, a hand will get too close to a cage, or an animal will make an unprecedented leap.
I wish we had a wall somewhere with the names of zookeepers who were killed in the line of duty etched in stone – perhaps with the image of the animal that was responsible for their death. Dianna Hanson’s name would be added to the list that includes Stepanie James (Knoxville Zoo, 2011), Dawn Brancheau (Seaworld, 2010), and the two zookeepers who were killed in Europe in 2012 (one in Germany by a tiger and one in Sweden by wolves). I would like to see my friend, Dave Marshall (killed by a tiger at Metrozoo in Miami) so honored.
I wonder, sometimes, how our job compares to that of a firefighter or police officer. I have been bitten, kicked, and gored. I have been stared down by a young bull elephant that was “feeling his oats” and chased out of a cage by a polar bear that woke up from his tranquilizer prematurely. But I have friends who have not been so fortunate. They have had careers ended and even been killed by the animals they cared for. Danger can even come from unexpected quarters. I once had a rib cracked while trying to catch a llama in the children’s zoo. And how do I know my rib was cracked? Because a certain young veterinarian (who shall remain nameless) x-rayed me on the floor of the zoo’s animal hospital.