A Walk on the Wild Side: Keeping Your Kids Safe at the Zoo
Follow these safety tips when taking your child to the zoo so he can enjoy majestic wild animals without getting hurt
On most trips to the zoo, the biggest hazard is likely to be a stomachache from too much soda and candy, or the hit to your wallet from too many souvenirs. But recently a YouTube clip that went viral reminds us that while we may love watching wild animals at the zoo, they don’t always feel the same way about us.
In the Youtube video, a little girl stands in front of an enclosure of silverback gorillas at Omaha’s Henry Doorley Zoo playfully beating her chest in imitation. Watching, a large silverback male suddenly charges towards the family and hurls his entire body at the window, cracking the glass. Shrieks and shouts are heard as the terrified family flees.
Fortunately, the gorilla did not escape, and there were no injuries to zoo goers (the gorilla’s condition is still unknown). Nor was it clear that the child’s imitation of a gorilla was what provoked him. But the close encounter reminds us that however fun and safe zoos generally are, we are still in wild animal territory and need to take some precautions.
Related: What to Do if You Encounter a Bear
In another recent incident, a mother at the Cleveland Zoo was holding her 3-year-old over the railing of the cheetah exhibit so he could get a better look lost her grip on her child, dropping him 12 feet into cheetah cage. She and her husband leaped in to rescue him, and since the animals did not attack, the child escaped with only a leg injury.
Several years earlier, a 2-year-old was not so fortunate. A mother at the Pittsburgh Zoo also lost her grip while dangling her son over an exhibit of African wild dogs for a better view. The child died after his fall and the ensuing dog attack.
In rare cases, other zoo visitors have been injured or even killed when animals managed to escape their enclosures.
Simple safety precautions
Besides calling for safer enclosures, there are some practical things you can do to keep you and your little ones safe.
Never hold your child over the rail of a wild animal enclosure for a better view, no matter how anxious he is to see the animals. Don’t prop him on the railing, either, and don't let him lean over it. You know what can happen now, so enough said.
Keep small children within close reach. A handful of enterprising children have managed to climb into wild animal enclosures, and the barriers to some outdoor alligator exhibits could be scaled by a kindergartener. Keep your children in sight at all times. In Kansas, a 7-year-old boy on a field trip with his elementary school climbed over a guardrail at the Sedgwick County Zoo to get closer to the leopard cage and was mauled on the neck and head when an Amur leopard reached a paw through the bars and grabbed him.
Remind them that zoo animals really are wild. These are not the cute 'n cuddly zoo animals your child may have seen in the Dreamworks' movie Madagascar. You can explain that “wild” doesn’t mean they’re mean, but these animals are not used to human contact or being approached.
Don't let your child play with or be photographed with a big cat. This practice is dying out, but there are still animal parks and preserves promoting photos with apes and tiger cubs, and the Lujan Zoo near Buenos Aires, Argentina, actually invites children to pet, hug and ride on tigers, lions and bears. In 2005, a high school senior in Kansas died after being attacked by an Asian tiger during a school photo session at Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary, even though the tiger was being restrained by its owner.
Follow the zoo’s warning signs. Set a good example, and remind your children that the warning signs are in place for a reason. Remind them that they’re not allowed to touch, feed or throw things at the animals. Remind them they have to stay on the visitor paths and follow all signs that restrict reaching or climbing on exhibits.
“This is the animals’ home, and you’re a visitor.” You want your child to respect the animals and their space.You might ask him: “Would you like it if a stranger was screaming at you or tapping through the glass? Loud noises may startle the animals, and you don’t want to scare them.”
Teach your child how to gently pet or touch animals at the petting zoo. Don’t let your little guys hit or swat at the goats, chickens, pigs or other animals. Whether they're bold or timid, stay right beside them the whole time.
After the petting zoo, make sure your child washes his hands. This is true even if he doesn't touch the animals there. Make sure he doesn't touch his face or suck his thumb before washing up.
Carry water and sunscreen. Your child is more likely to get sunburned or mildly dehydrated than to ever have a bad animal encounter. Make sure she gets plenty of water, spends as much time as possible in the shade and doesn't get too much sugar.
Add a dollop of patience and affection, and she's bound to have a great time at the zoo. Just don’t let her provoke or tease the animals — whether it’s a big gorilla or a tiny frog.