The tragic death of Dianna Hanson, an intern at an exotic animal park in California reiterates the fact the extreme caution must be used when interacting with wild animals. A portion of my practice includes wild animals (I am licensed wildlife rehabilitator) and I have therefore had some experience working with these beautiful animals. My experience has taught me that no matter how tame they may appear, they are, and always will be, wild. There is a certain amount of unpredictability inherent in their nature that requires a great deal of caution and deference, no matter how tame they seem.
Even domestic animals are unpredictable. Domestication is a process usually requiring thousands of years of genetic selection of wild animals for traits such as behavioral changes which render them safer to interact with. Safer nonetheless should not imply safe, as even domestic animals can be unpredictable. I have never met an animal that can be trusted with 100% confidence. Any animal in under the right circumstances may react in a manner that will result in serious injury or death. I have been chased out of more than one corral at the behest of an irritated cow and backed out of more than one exam room in search of a muzzle for and angry dog.
The danger of working with wild animals was illustrated very clearly to me during a two day visit to the Los Angeles Zoo during Christmas break while I was a first year veterinary student. My in-laws lived in Southern California and I arranged to spend a few days at the Zoo. It was a wonderful experience, but as I accompanied him on his daily rounds the attending veterinarian had to keep reminding me to not lean against the cages. As he examined a South American Uakari I watched him so intently that I didn’t notice I was leaning up against the cage. Even that contact was exposing me to unacceptable danger and I hadn’t even gone into the enclosure. My biggest error in judgment was leaning against the back door to the Black Mamba’s habitat as it had an easy to open latch that I kept resting on.
One of the greatest lessons for me on using caution with wild animals was a story related to me by long time wildlife and zoo veterinarian Murray Fowler. He was darting a Polar Bear at the Sacramento Zoo and even though the bear appeared to be unconscious from a distance something at the back of Dr. Fowler’s mind warned him to not go in. He darted a second time and then after entering the enclosure and removing the first dart he found that none of the anesthetic had been discharged into the bear. The bear was clever enough to feign unconsciousness. The calamity that may have resulted had the second dart not been administered could have been life threatening.
We may never know how “Cous Cous’s” escaped from his feeding cage and why he killed Dianna Hanson that day. It was most likely a tragic mistake that will be second guessed for a very long time. It was the end of what, by all accounts, was the life of a vibrant and dynamic young woman. Our prayers and condolences go out to her family and friends.