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Kansas City Zoo Director on possible changes to gorilla enclosures: “You just can’t be too safe”

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tuesday, The Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced they will be taking a closer look at the Cincinnati Zoo and how a boy ended up in a gorilla exhibit, prompting an emergency response team to kill the gorilla. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials will also check to see if they were compliant with the Animal Welfare Act. Meanwhile, Cincinnati police said they are centering their investigation on the parents.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Kansas City Zoo say they are taking a closer look at their enclosures after the incident.

Kansas City Zoo Executive Director and C.E.O. Randy Wisthoff says he thinks the Cincinnati Zoo staff did the right thing, and really the only thing it could to save the boy. Now they are working to make sure nothing like that ever happens here.

When people come to view Kansas City’s five gorillas, ranging from a 1-year old, to a 400-pound silver haired gorilla similar in size to the one killed in Cincinnati, they stand alongside a 42-inch tall fence.

“I love these babies, I love these gorillas, we are out here every couple weeks,” zoo member Adrienne Gant said.

It’s the first line of defense separating the beautiful, yet dangerous animals from humans, but that fencing sometimes blocks the views of little ones.

“You really have to keep a close eye on your kids, because they do try to get as close as view as they can,” grandparent Laura Reyes said.

That’s what seems to have happened in Cincinnati where a 3-year-old ended up in the moat with a 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe. Saying the boy could have been dead by the time a tranquilizer dart took effect, emergency response teams shot and killed the great ape.

At the Kansas City Zoo they’ve had several drills since 2014, when chimps found a way to use a branch to get out of their enclosure, but Wisthoff said they never really anticipated someone getting in.

“Did we ever prepare for a 3-year-old to get into a gorilla exhibit? I would say we may not have thought of that, but I think they handled it professionally, perfectly, I would have done the same thing,” Wisthoff said.

A few foot buffer zone separates the fence from a wall and steep dropoff. That shear wall is also guarded by hot wire.

Wisthoff says it’s always proved enough of a deterrent to keep animals in, and humans out. But in the wake of what happened in Cincinnati, he says his zoo and others across America will be taking a closer look at safety measures and conducting toddler-breach drills.

“We’ll go back and review everything and take a look. Do we have gaps where somebody can get where they aren’t supposed to be? And if we do, we will do our best to close up those gaps so people can go to the zoos and feel safe,” Wisthoff said.

Part of the zoo’s appeal is the access it gives visitors to animals, for examples kangaroos are essentially allowed to roam free.

For every safety measure they might implement, Wisthoff says it comes down to guests heeding warnings, staying on paths, and using common sense to protect themselves and their families.