SF Zoo culture and safety initiatives questioned by workers, documents show 

click to enlarge A woman places flowers at a memorial for Kabibe, a 16-month-old gorilla that died at the San Francisco Zoo after being pinned under a hydraulic door Nov. 7. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/THe S.f. Examiner
  • A woman places flowers at a memorial for Kabibe, a 16-month-old gorilla that died at the San Francisco Zoo after being pinned under a hydraulic door Nov. 7.

Details have emerged following the Nov. 7 death of a San Francisco Zoo gorilla showing that the accident could have been prevented.

Repeated warnings about animal and animal-keeper safety were ignored prior to the death of the zoo's youngest gorilla, which led workers to cast a vote of no confidence in the zoo's popular executive director last year and suggest that the death was avoidable, emails and documents show.

Kabibe, the 16-month-old member of the six-gorilla troop, died after she somehow became pinned underneath a closing hydraulic door at the Jones Family Gorilla preserve after the zoo closed for the evening.

Prior to the death, warnings issued to officials, including Director Tanya Peterson, about zoo procedure -- and specifically protocol during closing time at the gorilla enclosure -- went unheeded, documents obtained by The San Francisco Examiner show.

In an email to Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg sent the day after the accident, Peterson suggested that the lone zookeeper on duty at the gorilla enclosure did not follow procedure by keeping a hand on an emergency-stop button.

But prior to the death, primate keepers had pushed for an extra zookeeper to be on duty specifically to help keep an eye on Kabibe.

Zoo officials were also informed that several of the gorilla enclosure's thousand-pound doors -- two of which had unexpectedly fallen shut in recent years -- cannot be seen from the control panel, said Corey Hallman, a current zookeeper and 11-year veteran of the zoo.

More than a year before Kabibe's death, zookeepers said extra help in the form of a second apekeeper was "necessary due to the increased workload from the introduction of an infant gorilla to the group," said a Nov. 6, 2013, email from a zookeeper to supervisors about Kabibe.

The zookeeper present for Kabibe's death was working alone at the time.

Two zookeepers are now on duty in the gorilla enclosure, Hallman said.

Zookeepers also noted that the hydraulic doors presented problems for young gorillas as early as 2010.

In a January 2010 memo obtained by The Examiner, a zookeeper noted that Hasani, who was at that time about Kabibe's age when she died, "does not understand closing doors."

"Avoid shifting Hasani into far off electric doors [which are hard to see gorillas through] as much as possible," the zookeeper wrote.

It was the farthest-off door that crushed Kabibe.

A spokeswoman said the zoo would not comment on the incident until investigations into the death are complete.

Representatives with Teamsters Local 856, which organizes zookeepers, also declined to comment.

In April, union leaders sent zoo workers a letter in which employees expressed concern about the zoo, saying Peterson "failed to promote a culture of safety, according to a copy obtained by The Examiner. The letter preceded a nonbinding vote of no confidence by zoo workers and also contained details of a dispute involving an inoperable emergency button in a leopard enclosure.

In addition, the letter stated that employees were discouraged from identifying safety concerns.

Peterson became zoo director in 2008 in the wake of a fatal tiger mauling of a patron in 2007 that was costly for the zoo and damaged its reputation.

Since Peterson took over, attendance and revenue have soared.

The zoo posted a $1.1 million profit in 2013 and has cash reserves of over $14 million, according to operator the Zoological Society's most recent tax filings.

Peterson, a former Hewlett-Packard lawyer, is unquestionably dedicated to the zoo -- she personally fed Kabibe from a bottle after the infant gorilla was rejected by her mother.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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