Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Animal deaths bring Duluth zoo security concerns to light

No one knows whether three hours could have made a difference to the animals that died in flash flooding 11 days ago at the Lake Superior Zoo, but that’s how much time passed between the sounding of an alarm at the Polar Shores exhibit and the time zoo officials knew they had a serious problem.
The alarm sounded at midnight in the midst of a torrential rain. Following protocol, the zoo’s security company notified Peter Pruett, director of animal management. Protocol next called for the security company to contact Duluth police and have them go to the zoo and check on the exhibit.
But the police didn’t get there.

Meanwhile, the downpour, combined with a plugged culvert, caused the zoo’s concave landscape to fill like a bowl. At 3 a.m., Pruett was notified that a seal had escaped. Soon he would learn that the polar bear and other zoo animals also were free, and as many as 14 animals had drowned.

The revelations point to a security problem at the zoo, Pruett and other zoo staff members past and present told the News Tribune last week. The lack of 24-hour security has been a problem in the past, zoo staff said, and may also be a violation of policies set out by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Until late last week, night security at the zoo has involved zoo guards patrolling the grounds until 10 p.m.

But unfettered access to the zoo along a creek that flows into the zoo has allowed trespassers to get in and throw objects at animals overnight and, without surveillance cameras or 24-hour security guards on site, no one has caught the offenders, staff members said.

On the night of the flood, having a security guard on site would have meant quicker intervention, they said.

“If there would have been somebody here to tell us there was a problem, someone would have been here sooner,” said lead zookeeper Maicie Sykes.

Sykes, Pruett and other employees said that for at least the past three years, they’ve tried to persuade Zoological Society CEO Sam Maida to add 24-hour security and cameras and a way to completely secure the zoo’s perimeter.

Pruett cited the lack of a guard on zoo grounds the night of the flood as the reason for multiple communication failures. Instead of having a police officer check on the Polar Shores alarm, a guard could have done it, he said.

“With a person on grounds, there would never be a mistake if an alarm goes off,” Pruett said.

On Friday, after the News Tribune began interviewing people for this story, Maida said he had hired a security company to provide 24-hour coverage for the zoo. He said he had already planned to do that later in July.

“We just accelerated that process,” he said.

When the zoo was reaccredited in 2011, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums criticized the zoo’s security and said it “had a naïve approach to safety.”

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