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10 Horrifying Zoo Accidents

by Mike Devlin
fact checked by Jamie Frater

With a little common sense and adherence to regulation, most zoos are safe. Indeed, they play host to millions of visitors every year, many of them children. But it would be hubris to think it perfectly secure to imprison hundreds of carnivores, serpents, and ten ton megafauna in cages without incident. Below are ten reasons why lions, tigers, and bears might just belong in the wild. I have made a conscious decision to try to spread the events out between different species, but this list constitutes only a sliver of the multiple horror stories that unfold every year throughout the world.


Binky The Polar Bear

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Australian tourist Kathryn Warburton got far more than she bargained for when she scaled two safety fences to get a photo of Binky, a 1,200lb polar bear. The bear promptly stuck his head through the bars of the cage, seizing her. Warburton’s leg was broken and she suffered lacerations. She might have been killed outright if not for quick thinking zoo visitors who thrashed Binky with branches, causing him to relinquish his hold. Only a month and a half later, the bear mauled another tourist, a drunk teenager whose leg was torn up. Despite the attacks, Binky became a minor celebrity, his face adorning zoo merchandise.


Melody The Tapir


The tapir is a strange looking beast similar to the pig, found in Central and South America and parts of Asia. On the morning of 27 November 1998, zookeeper Lisa Morehead was feeding a Malayan tapir named Melody (a new mother with a 2 month old baby in her enclosure) when the animal bit her left arm. Morehead fought back, suffering facial lacerations, and internal injuries including a punctured lung, but lost the battle for her arm. It was torn off at mid-bicep, too mangled and contaminated to be reattached.


Multiple Wolves

Alameda Park Zoo Mexican Gray Wolf At Pond

As a feature of a new Wolf Center exhibit, 24 year old Patricia Wyman, a wildlife biologist, was hired by the preserve to be a caretaker to five gray wolves and conduct education programs with the public. Wyman had only been in the wolf enclosure twice prior to the attack, once with a supervisor and once to feed the animals. Other employees asserted that the wolves were shy, and generally kept their distance whenever people entered their area. Although no one directly witnessed the attack, it is believed that Patricia may have tripped, triggering the wolves’ predatory instincts. She was found nude and covered with bite marks, some of the flesh on her arms and legs torn away. The wolves were destroyed and tested for rabies; all tested negative.


Gu Gu The Giant Panda


Of course there is no denying the appeal of a panda; they may be very simply the cutest beasts on the face of the planet. But they are also equipped with very capable jaws, as three separate visitors to the Beijing Zoo discovered. The first, a drunken 35 year old named Zhang Xinyan, jumped into the panda enclosure to cuddle with 240lb Gu Gu. He was quickly rebuffed and bitten on the legs. The second visitor, a 15 year old boy named Li Xitao, encountered Gu Gu at feeding time. Li was savaged, chunks of flesh torn from his legs so that the bones beneath were showing. In 2009, another dude named Zhang jumped into the panda enclosure to retrieve a toy his child had dropped. Again Gu Gu went for the legs… he was apparently so angry that workers had to pry his jaws open with tools.


Mila The Elephant


Mila was a 39 year old African elephant who’d formerly spent some 3 decades as a circus performer. She’d been staying at the Franklin Zoo, New Zealand for 4 years, but it was only a temporary arrangement; zoo owner Helen Schofield had plans to have her transferred to a sanctuary in California. Possibly as a result of trauma suffered in the circus (where elephants have been known to absorb terrible abuse), Mila crushed 42 year old Schofield with her trunk.


Jabari The Gorilla

Gorillajabaristanding-03-08-Tm-765Jabari was a 13 year old western lowland gorilla, house in an enclosure surrounded by 16 foot concave walls. Reportedly taunted by some kids, Jabari managed to scale those walls and commence a rampage. The three hundred plus pound gorilla attacked four people, including 26 year old Keisha Heard and her 3 year old son Rivers. At one point Jabari put the child into his mouth, gnawing on his head and chest. In this case, everyone survived but Jabari himself. He was shot by police SWAT team members after charging at them.


Nyanga The Lion


Due to staff shortages, worker Joe Ramonetha came out of retirement to tend to lions at the Parys Zoo Farm, a breeding area for the Johannesburg Zoo. He was in the enclosure in a hallway which the animals could not normally access when he encountered a lioness named Nyanga (meaning ‘witch doctor). Other staff members responded to his screams, but by then it was too late. Nyanga had bitten through Ramonetha’s neck, killing him. Nyanga’s life was spared; she was sent to a sanctuary shortly thereafter.


Tilikum The Orca


12,000lb Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity, the size of a full-grown male African elephant. He was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 and sent to Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. Although he is trained, no handlers have been authorized to enter the water with him because of his sheer immensity. In 1991, a young trainer named Keltie Byrne fell into a tank containing Tilikum and two other whales. The three orca seemingly ‘played’ with Byrne until she drowned. The following year, Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando, where he proved a very successful breeder and lived without incident until July 6, 1999, when a SeaWorld guest named Daniel Dukes snuck into the orca tank after the park closed. Dukes’ battered corpse was found Tilikum’s back later. On February 24, 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau was working with Tilikum after a stage show when the whale seized her and pulled her into the water. Other trainers attempted to coax the whale into another area and free Brancheau, but it was too late- she died of drowning and blunt force trauma, including broken bones and a severed spinal cord. Tilikum continues to perform.


African Painted Dogs

African-Wild-Dogs-Child-Zoo 60934 600X450African Wild Dogs are the size of a medium domestic dog. They are sub-Saharan pack hunters with savage jaws, known for disemboweling their prey. On the morning of November 4th, 2012, 2 year old Maddock Derkosh was perched on a railing outside the Pittsburgh Zoo’s Painted Dog Bush Camp exhibit by his mother. Tragically, he tumbled off, landing on some protective netting and then bouncing into the enclosure. He was immediately set upon by at least 3 dogs, who attacked him about the head and torso. Zoo workers were able to drive away most of the animals, but one of the dogs refused to leave the body and police were forced to open fire. Autopsy results indicated that Maddock survived the fall and was killed by the attack.


Zanesville Massacre

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61 year old Terry Thompson was a Vietnam vet with a lifetime habit of collecting exotic animals. Over the years, he built a vast private menagerie at his Zanesville, Ohio home. On October 18, 2011, Thompson proceeded to free dozens of his animals and then killed himself with a gunshot to the head. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor called the police after witnessing a bear and a lion stalking outside. Police arrived to find Thompson’s corpse being gnawed by a white tiger. What followed could only be described as a massacre; officers stormed the grounds with high-powered rifles, hunting the loose beasts. The most dangerous, they would report afterwards, were the tigers, who lay in ambush and charged at them even after being riddled with bullets. Hours later, the hunt was over, and 2 wolves, 2 grizzly bears, 18 tigers, 17 lions, 6 black bears, 3 mountain lions, and 2 monkeys were dead. There were no human casualties excepting Thompson himself. The animals were buried in a mass grave on the property.

fact checked by Jamie Frater