The Cincinnati Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums until September 2019
Credit: Kim O'Connor

Following the shooting of one of the Cincinnati Zoo’s western lowland gorillas after a child fell into its enclosure this weekend, zoos across the country are facing increased scrutiny and questioning of their safety methods.

Animal rights advocacy group Born Free has a searchable database of “exotic animal incidents” and counts 256 injuries from animal attacks at accredited and non-accredited zoos, menageries and wild animal parks in the U.S. since 1990. Of these, thirty-three victims died from their injuries, though most of these incidents involved zoo employees or trainers, not visitors.

Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, held a press conference Saturday where he defended the zoo’s safety measures. “The barriers are safe. The barriers exceed any required protocols,” Maynard said. “The trouble with barriers is that whatever the barrier some people can get past it.” Witnesses to the incident Saturday (which zoo officials say is their first barrier breach since 1978) say the 3-year-old boy managed to crawl through fence railings, cross through bushes and climb over another barrier before dropping into the moat with Harambe.

The 2016 version of the Zoological Association of America “Animal Care & Enclosure Standards” handbook has a section dedicated specifically to gorillas, which states, “For one or two animals, an enclosure 28 feet by 24 feet, 10 feet high. For each additional animal, increase enclosure size by 50 percent of original floor area.”

It continues: “Wet or dry moats may be substituted for the required fencing provided ZAA written approval has been obtained. For island exhibits, wet moats shall be used that are no less than 20 feet wide, with 50 percent of the water having a depth twice the height of the tallest animal.” The exact specifications of the Cinncinnati Zoo’s gorilla enclosure are unknown, but the Zoo is accredited by both the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the American Alliance of Museums until September 2019.

Meanwhile, on the human side of things, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not designate a specific section of standards and regulations for zoo workers, though, as previously mentioned, employees are more likely to be the target of animal attacks than visitors. Requirements for zoos fall under OSHA’s general regulations for “safe and healthy” work environments, and OSHA has stepped in to prosecute facilities where employees were harmed.

However, when animals are harmed, OSHA loses jurisdiction. “When animals are injured or killed by captivity conditions,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund wrote in 2014, “OSHA cannot investigate what went wrong and enforce the law. Instead, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has jurisdiction, under the Animal Welfare Act.” Zoos are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act, which is the only federal law that regulates the treatments of animals in research, exhibition transport and dealers. It’s been amended seven times, mostly recently in 2008, but most amendments have focused on farm animals and animal fighting.