PHOENIX – After a jaguar attacked a woman at the Phoenix area’s Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park, the director of the park’s accrediting organization said the zoo handled the situation deftly.
The woman allegedly crossed a barrier to snap a selfie with the big cat, which clawed her and pinned her to the cage before another visitor distracted it, according to information from Rural Metro Fire Department and the Wildlife World Zoo.
In an interview with CBS 5 (KPHO) and 3TV (KTVK), she denied crossing the barrier and trying to take a selfie. However, she admitted to leaning over the barrier.
“The institution did everything right,” said John Seyjagat, executive director of the Zoological Association of America. “The one thing we don’t have protocols for is testing people for being stupid when they come through your gates.”
The woman later apologized to the zoo, Wildlife World Zoo spokeswoman Kristy Morcom said.
What barriers are required?
The Wildlife World Zoo is a USDA-licensed, private facility with more than 600 species and 6,000 animals on display.
The private zoo is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums, according to its website.
Regulations from the Zoological Association of America require barriers to be at least 3 feet tall and 3 feet away from animal enclosures, Seyjagat said.
Barriers around that jaguar enclosure exceeded those regulations and people shouldn’t cross barriers to take a photo with a wild animal, he said.
Zoos can also get accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Barrier requirements for that organization are less clear. However, its rules call for a 25-foot dry moat around open-air jaguar enclosures.
Inside the 2 metro-Phoenix zoos
A jaguar prowls overhead, growling as a group of children take its picture from the muddy ground on a rainy Tuesday at the Wildlife World Zoo.
It slinks down a tree trunk to reach ground level. Its enclosure fence is 3 feet from a short cinderblock barrier separating the public from the big cat.
It’s not the same jaguar that attacked the woman Saturday – that one was taken off display, Morcom said. It won’t come back to the exhibit until the zoo’s investigation is complete.
The zoo has said it won’t put the jaguar down.
A jaguar roams its overhead enclosure at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park days after another one attacked a woman.
At the Phoenix Zoo, Caipora the female jaguar chews on a bone. Her enclosure fence is 5 feet, 7 inches away from a raised landing visitors stand on. The landing has a short barrier around it, as well.
Harry, the male jaguar, is in a separate enclosure because jaguars are solitary in the wild, spokeswoman Linda Hardwick said. His enclosure fence is 5 feet, 8 inches from a short barrier fence visitors stand behind.
What’s the ‘gold standard’ for zoos?
Zoos and aquariums have two main accrediting agencies and the difference comes down to two factors: purpose and size.
City-run or non-profit-run zoos with conservation and scientific research programs – like the Phoenix Zoo – are usually accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which was founded in 1924.
“We’re all about our animals and we’re all about saving species in the wild,” Phoenix Zoo President Bert Castro said. “Association of Zoos and Aquariums is the gold standard.”
Smaller, privately owned zoos, like the Wildlife World Zoo, are usually accredited by the Zoological Association of America, which was founded in 2005.
“We were accredited by AZA from 1988-2009. After careful consideration by zoo officials and staff, the decision was made to relinquish accreditation with AZA,” Morcom said. “The goals of ZAA and AMMPA, are more in line with private institutions that don’t receive any taxpayer funding.”
There are 233 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities in the U.S., including the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Ohio, where the gorilla Harambe was killed in 2016 after a boy fell into his enclosure.
There are 60 Zoological Association of America-accredited ones, including northern Arizona’s Bearizona.
Some zoos, such as the Fort Worth Zoo, are accredited by both.
Seyjagat said the Zoological Association of America was founded as a cheaper alternative to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which could be too expensive for small zoos.
The organization has been criticized by animal-rights groups for being more lax with its safety requirements than its counterpart, which has teams of inspectors and veterinarians who conduct three- to five-day inspections of its accredited facilities. Both organizations require its zoos and aquariums to go through the inspection and accreditation process every five years.
A 2017 report from the Humane Society of the United States alleged the Zoological Association of America “has weak standards, endorses poorly run roadside zoos,” has more lax inspections and threatens public safety by allowing “public contact with dangerous wild animals.”
Seyjagat disputes that, saying that zoos don’t need any more regulation than what the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local governments already have in place.
‘Murky brown’ water, ‘stumbling’ animals
Documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of the Wildlife World Zoo show federal inspectors issued citations for habitat conditions and animal health in 2016 and 2017.
Inspectors found three Red River Hogs that only had a “shallow pool” of “murky brown” water to drink from in 2016.
In 2017, they found two prairie dogs in need of veterinary care, “stumbling and falling” and struggling “to right themselves after they fell over.”
Also in 2017, they found a monkey enclosure with broken edges that “created sharp points that could injure the primates” and posed “a risk of escape.”
All three instances were addressed by the facility, records show.
“(USDA inspections) are quite common in the zoo industry,” Seyjagat said. “Every zoo is going to get non-compliance. Minor non-compliances is nothing to hit an institution on.”
Follow Joshua Bowling on Twitter: @MrJoshuaBowling.
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