I tend to react quickly to things, often incorrectly. I have learned this about myself through sending emails while I am still emotionally charged up about something. So when I heard about the tiger attack at the Palm Beach Zoo I wanted to really let my feelings marinate before writing a post about the incident. By all public accounts, Stacey Konwiser was an experienced carnivore keeper and therefore knew the risks associated with working big cats. This is an extremely important piece of information for two reasons. One, she chose to do this job despite knowing how dangerous it can be. Secondly, it shows us that even people very good at their job can make mistakes. Unfortunately for people that work with dangerous animals, a simple mistake like missing a lock or a hidden animal, can mean paying the ultimate price.
In my last post, I wrote a bit about becoming complacent and how it put me in a bad spot as a rookie keeper. Once you have been doing this job for a while you tend to get into a routine and basic tasks like lock management become so second nature that you don’t even think about them. You cannot get complacent when you work with carnivores and other dangerous animals.
Facebook user and fellow animal care professional Stephanie Meyer, wrote an inspired reaction post to the untimely event on her timeline that has caught fire over the last several days. Stephanie eloquently describes the number of locks that she is responsible for over the course of a day, week, year, and an entire career. Keepers, especially keepers that work with dangerous animals, know exactly how many locks are in their area, but it is shocking when you put the numbers on paper and extrapolate it out to see just how many opportunities we actually have to miss something that could be deadly to us and others. Stephanie rightly criticizes the press and organizations like Peta for placing blame without really knowing what they are talking about. It’s easy to make blanket statements about negligence and generalizations about keeping big cats in zoos, but unless you are there on the front lines you really should just shut your mouth and instead listen to the people that know what they are talking about. That generally doesn't make for a good news story, though, so instead the press rushes to an organization that they know will generate clicks and revenue.
We as a society need to learn from our mistakes; especially mistakes that end up costing lives. For me, that means using Stacey’s death as a teachable moment for myself and other zookeepers. As of this writing, I have not seen any details as to what exactly happened that day. In the CNN report, they said that she was preparing to do a keeper talk in the tiger night house exhibit. I can only speculate, but I can envision a scenario where the keeper was in a rush to set up for her talk, closed off the shift doors leading to off-exhibit bedrooms, but neglected to make sure the area was clear of animals. Making sure doors are locked and secure is only half the battle. Laying eyes on every single animal that could possibly be in that area is just as important as securing the barrier between you and something that can kill you. There are numerous examples where a cat has doubled back through another shift door when the keeper’s attention was elsewhere even for just a split second. You have to know where all your animals are at all times. Another thing that could have happened is another keeper that was in the area before her missed something. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, but it is certainly a risk when working dangerous animals with other keepers. In these situations, communication between those working the area is of utmost importance. The bottom line is this: When shifting animals and entering their space, your complete focus needs to be on that task. Don’t let anything like radio calls, guests, conversations, or notifications on your phone be a distraction.
No one except Stacey knows exactly what happened that afternoon, but I hope her death stays in the minds of carnivore keepers everywhere as a reminder of what could happen if you don't show up with your "A" game when assigned to work an area with dangerous animals.