Wroclaw, 8:30 a.m. September 16th, 2015. A huge number of professionals are waiting for the opening of the most important meeting of European zoo life in a large conference hall. Being the host of the annual EAZA conference is a great honour for any zoo, and it was also a personal success for Mr. Radosław Ratajszczak, the director of Wroclaw Zoo, a popular and recognised professional. However, instead of celebrating, he shocked the audience: “I thought it would be the best day of my life, I was happy to be able to greet you all here in Wrocław. Unfortunately it appears to be the worst day of my life. Today, early in the morning one of our keepers was attacked by a tiger. I would like to ask for a minute's silence in memory of the keeper." The experienced zoo keeper died. It was a tragedy for him as well as for his family, friends and colleagues, but it was a tragedy for the whole zoo community too. That’s why there was appalling silence…
Experienced zoo keeper? Again… If I take a look at the last fatal accidents in zoos, I have to realise that most of the victims were experienced employees. The scenes were very similar, during the daily routine dangerous animals (in the last cases tigers) somehow entered the enclosure from the house to find the keepers there. In Wroclaw the investigators didn’t find any problem with the sliding door later, but probably it had not been properly closed.
Why did the skilled workers make these silly but fatal mistakes? We may think that experienced staff members are free of mistakes, they are more cautious than novices. What would be the reason? Maybe too much confidence? “I‘m an expert, I cannot make a mistake.” If there is no doubt in your being perfect, checking yourself is unnecessary… I don’t think so. However, routine can cause a loss of attention. Work phases follow each other automatically; we do not focus on them too much. We think about other things while our hands do their job… We trust these phases we make in a similar way day after day. We have a time schedule; we don’t like to be distracted from it for any reason. We also trust our veteran colleagues that they also work without errors. On the other hand, an ambitious novice is always afraid of making a mistake, so they check themselves continuously – which can compensate for their lack of experience.
How could we prevent these accidents? A lot of zoo workers have the obsession of checking everything several times. It looks like a mental illness in everyday life but it could indeed be useful in a zoo. I remember when I returned home to check the door even for the third time if it was closed or wasn’t… it was such an unnerving bad habit! However, I found that checking the locks several times is useful in zoos. We should always act like a novice in these cases!
Nevertheless, can we say that erring victims are solely responsible for the accidents? I don’t think so, even if we know the direct causes which are the consequences of mistakes. But the zoo is a system which should be operated in a way to minimalize the chances of any personal fault and to reduce their effects. When we plan a system we often assume that the elements – including the workers – will always work properly. This overly optimistic approach is a self-delusion and leads to unavoidable problems. There should be technical and logistical safeguards to prevent system faults caused by human error. For example an adequate number of staff and proper organisation of their work could prevent precipitance; integrating necessary feedback into the procedure of moving animals around could reduce the chance of mistakes. Some zoos send keepers after several years to other sections. It is a good solution on one side but it has many disadvantages as well: losing a very experienced keeper of a special taxon is a great loss… Retraining experienced workers and periodic control of the routine workflow could be more useful.
There is no universal cure for fatal zoo accidents, but with some attention and appropriate organisation the chance of tragedies can be minimalised. The number of these accidents is still relatively low, of course, but since we are in the focus of the media, and it is a popular topic, people could perceive the situation to be worse than it really is. This could result in a negative perception of zoos, as we indeed feel it after these scandals.