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A tiger escapes and mauls three teenagers, next a polar bear and leopard nearly escape. No, this is not a new science fiction movie trailer, but the reality of life at the San Francisco zoo in the last three weeks. On Christmas day, three friends were visiting the zoo and for some unknown reason, a four year old Siberian tiger allegedly jumped a large enclosure and viciously attacked the young men; one died and two were critically injured. On the New Year’s Day incidence, a polar bear and leopard almost escaped from their enclosures. The zookeepers are on record stating that they are fearful for their safety and in fact, whether the visitors are safe as well.

That doesn’t encourage me to take my kids to a zoo anytime soon!
These recent incidences have brought attention to the laws and standards that govern zoos. Although the accreditation agency is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, (AZA), the U.S. department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has the primary responsibility to regulate zoos and other exhibits containing animals as a part of the Animal Welfare Act. However, the federal agency only has about 100 inspectors and they are overworked. Their job is to inspect more than 200 accredited zoos and thousands of roadside attractions, circuses and other private animal enterprises.

Each accredited zoo must be inspected every two years to keep its affiliation. However the Animal Welfare Act is written more with humane treatment rather than public safety in mind. One major area of concern is that there are no caging dimensions for animals, whether it is a rabbit or tiger. The general guidelines were meant for design flexibility for the animal’s comfort, safety and security. That is great until animals start escaping their enclosures and injuring people.
I n California the state law is clear; the owner of a wild cat is liable for any personal injury to another person. Of course all of the facts are not known at this time; whether the cat jumped out of its enclosure or whether human error left doors opened, the San Francisco Zoo and other facilities must start thinking public safety first if these types of facilities are to remain viable forms of family entertainment. In the past four years, there have been 14 major zoo accidents throughout the US, resulting in major personal injury and sometimes death. Until the “voluntary” industry standards are regulated a little more, we may unfortunately see more of these attacks.
Connecting people with wildlife is what zoos, primarily petting zoos; county fairs and wildlife exhibits do best. However over the last ten years, there has been an increasing number of injuries, exposure to rabies, and major disease outbreaks, including the deadly e-coli virus. This doesn’t mean that you should forbid your children from attending, but it does mean you should take some safety precautions while you are there. If you or your children are injured, don’t hesitate to contact a professional personal injury attorney immediately.

The primary safety measures when visiting these exhibits is always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after touching an animal. Even though direct touch with animals is the main cause of infection, be advised that airborne infections are quite probable due to manure on the ground and other means for spreading bacteria. If you suspect that there may not be hand washing stations, bring hand wipe-type sanitizers until you can reach adequate cleaning facilities.

Hand to mouth activities (e.g. carrying toys, pacifiers, eating, drinking) should never be allowed. In addition, don’t let kids play in and around the area where they might lean against objects in the zoo. Some children have been exposed to e-coli by playing on the ground near animals. If your child experiences fever, vomiting, severe diarrhea and you’ve visited a petting zoo recently, talk to your child’s doctor.

Lastly, for more information on keeping health around animals, visit

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