After Gorilla Killing, Changes Ahead for Zoos

The largest association of zoos and others are hoping to learn from recent incidents that led to the shooting deaths of a gorilla and two lions.

While animal experts agree that it is virtually impossible to prevent people from willingly entering open air zoo exhibits, changes to the spaces could happen in the coming months.

Both USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) are "looking into" the May 28 shooting at the Cincinnati Zoo of a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla, Discovery News was informed. The shooting happened after a 3-year-old boy went over an approximately 3-foot-tall steel barrier, traveled through 4 feet of bushes and dropped 15 feet to a moat, zoo director Thane Maynard said.

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The AZA has safety and security performance standards related to barriers. They call for "deterring public contact" with certain animals with guardrails, barriers or other means. Rob Vernon, a spokesperson for the AZA, told Discovery News that "each gorilla exhibit is unique and so is evaluated that way, but I would anticipate that through our and the Zoo's investigation process, the entire AZA community will learn from this incident."

Decades ago, many zoo enclosures worldwide consisted of many more steel bars that locked animals in, locked people out, and did not allow for much sunlight or fresh air. Although these kinds of cages still exist in some zoos, efforts have been made to improve conditions.

The husbandry manual "Management of Gorillas in Captivity," which is available to AZA members and was co-authored back in 1997 by 33 zoo and primate experts, says that "the tendency to write design standards as 'problem-oriented' and not 'opportunity-oriented' has resulted in a maximum security approach, which tends to eliminate enriching activities and pleasant surroundings."

"The scope of design projects tends to be defined by minimum standards of proven, built facilities rather than reaching toward innovation," the section continues. "Great ape exhibits have seen tremendous advances. The current state, however, is far from perfect. Only through evaluating the more fundamental issues and options related to design considerations can future facilities break new ground."

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With public security now in the spotlight, zoos are again weighing visitor safety vs. animal welfare needs. Adding to the concerns is that Cincinnati Zoo was found to be fully compliant with Animal Welfare Act standards as of their most recent inspection in early April of this year, Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for USDA-APHIS, told Discovery News.

Referring to the Zoo, she said, "We do not currently have an open investigation into this facility." She explained that an official federal investigation could lead to steep monetary penalties or even a suspension of the Zoo's license. USDA-APHIS instead is "looking into possible animal welfare non-compliance," she said, which could involve unannounced inspections, analysis of video taken of the incident, speaking to individuals who witnessed what happened to the boy, and other steps.

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Zoos are not required to be members of the AZA, but they all must adhere to the USDA-APHIS- enforced Animal Welfare Act, which can take months, if not years, to change. In the meantime, many zoos around the United States are re-evaluating their primate exhibits in hopes of avoiding what happened in Cincinnati.

Public safety issues at zoos are not unique to this country and do not just involve children. A week before the gorilla was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo, two lions were shot and killed at the Chilean National Zoo in Santiago, Chile, after a 20-year-old man, reportedly suffering from mental health problems and carrying a suicide note, entered the zoo's lion enclosure.

A statement issued by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) said: "Incidents like this are incredibly rare. While it is unfortunate that incidents such as this one unpredictably occur, human safety must come first. WAZA considers culling of animals to be a last resort, but emergency plans were in place and are required in order to save human lives. When a potentially dangerous animal poses a serious and unavoidable threat to human safety, saving human life must come first. However, it is truly regrettable that two animals had to lose their lives due to irresponsible human behavior."

Craig Sholley, vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation, told Discovery News, "A lot of time is spent in designing good, safe exhibits, but It is almost impossible to keep people out of them if they connive to enter."

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PETA and other animal activist groups have repeatedly called for the permanent closure of zoos and aquariums due to animal welfare concerns, but Sholley argues that "zoos play a vital role in conservation" via research, education, fundraising and other efforts.

He has seen the issue from all sides, having worked as a zoo curator and as a researcher in the field with renowned mountain gorilla specialist Dian Fossey (1932–1985), studying the large primates in the wild and spending countless hours around them. He said that gorillas can become habituated to human presence, but "dealing with a frightened, screaming intruder" in a captive setting can understandably lead to an unpredictable response from a gorilla.

Zoo incidents like what happened in Cincinnati and Santiago get lots of attention, but Sholley worries that there is not enough public focus on the bigger picture of gorilla conservation. Although gains have been made in saving the highly endangered mountain gorilla from the brink of extinction, work to conserve lowland gorillas has proven to be much more challenging, he said.

Sholley explained that poaching, diseases like Ebola, loss of habitat and other threats continue to take their toll on gorillas in the wild. Demand for timber and petroleum from Europe and United States can contribute to the threats, especially habitat loss. He argues that instead of blaming others for individual animal losses, we should all consider our own consumption habits and how they could be adversely impacting entire gorilla populations as well as other wildlife.