Leopard on the loose

Chaos erupted at the Johannesburg zoo when an angry leopard escaped from its enclosure, mauling a veterinarian and cornering two staff members in the men’s toilet.

The female leopard had been taken to the zoo’s hospital by Professional Wildlife Consultants, an outfit that uses the zoo’s facilities for treating wild animals. She had a broken right leg that needed to be pinned.

After the large cat had been sedated, the vet and his assistant slid a water dish into the enclosure but then noticed that the dish had slipped. The vet, Matt Hartley, entered the enclosure to move the dish and the leopard launched herself at him.

“The leopard leapt towards Hartley at shoulder height to escape through the doorway, where she grabbed on to him in flight. Hartley pushed the leopard off and sustained minor wounds on his right shoulder,” states a record of the incident.

“The leopard ran out of the big green door and a mayday call was put out. She was chased back into the hospital twice and then finally went into the male toilet area.”

Two staff members cowered behind a toilet door while a colleague fetched darting equipment and pried open a window. Eventually he managed to drug the leopard with a dart and she was returned to the hospital.

The incident, which took place in early January, is the subject of an internal investigation that highlights tensions among staff wrought by the transformation of the zoo from a public institution to a corporatised body.

Minutes of a “leopard escape incidence report debriefing meeting” leaked to the Mail & Guardian list a litany of glitches that could easily have turned the encounter into a disaster.

The most serious complaints were that no emergency procedure was in place, not all senior personnel have radios and so cannot respond to a crisis, and the zoo’s vet on duty could not have darted the animal because he is not registered in South Africa.

“It is incredibly fortunate that Dominic Moss [an assistant who darted the leopard] has done animal darting courses,” notes the record.

While the mayday call put out to staff did not specify what type of animal had escaped, security guards in the area communicated to members of the public that a leopard was on the loose. Hospital visitors and marketing personnel joined members of the public milling around excitedly in the hospital precinct.

The leopard outbreak was not the first close encounter with wildlife at the zoo in recent months. Late last year a lion managed to escape from the lion enclosure and make its way to an antelope camp. It managed to finish off two buck before zoo staff darted it the next morning.

Last October two different groups of lions started fighting each other after a gate was left open in the lion enclosure. The group of young lions at the losing end of the battle jumped into the moat surrounding the enclosure before staff managed to separate the two groups with fire extinguishers.

The zoo is now a non-profit company that receives an annual subsidy of about R20-million from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council.

Insiders say there has been a large turnover of staff since the zoo started a process of corporatisation in 2000. Tania Smith, the marketing and communications manager who left recently, is the latest casualty.

“Staff morale has been seriously depleted and there appears to be very little confidence in the management,” says councillor Rae Baur. “I am desperately worried about what is happening at the zoo, and so are several other Johannesburg councillors.”

Thembi Mogoai, former manager of the George airport who took over as CEO of the zoo in 2000, is under pressure to dramatically turn around the zoo’s income within the next five years. By her own admission, she knows little about animal husbandry and has left this in the hands of Eloise Langenhoven, general manager: operations.

Langenhoven, a former state veterinarian, says it would be virtually impossible for any of the zoo’s wild-life to escape into the surrounding suburbs. “That leopard would first have had to get out of the hospital grounds and then out of the zoo gate, by which time we would have shot it.”

Emergency procedures are in place, though they are being revised and updated, she says. “The leopard incident has sparked us into looking more seriously at these things.”

About 3 000 animals are kept in the confines of the zoo’s 54ha. Soon after Mogoai took over as CEO, she reportedly said: “The zoo is a safe place in the middle of a metropolitan jungle. It is one place where parents can let kids run free.”

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