Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur
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A tourist photographs a polar bear at a zoo in Denmark.

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur

How to be safe while visiting a zoo or other wildlife facility

Tragedies can be avoided by respecting captive animals and their boundaries, experts say.

Hundreds of millions of people visit zoos, aquariums, and aviaries in the United States each year, many hoping to witness the beauty and natural biodiversity this world has to offer.

Such facilities get us closer to animals than we ever could in the wild, in the process teaching us about wildlife and their environments. Many zoos also play a critical role in studying and conserving species that are on the brink of extinction in their native habitats.

In addition to the positives of a well-managed zoo, however, there's the potential for danger—a reality whenever people share the same space with non-domesticated animals. (Read what makes a good zoo—and how to decide which ones to visit.)

“You go to a zoo to touch your child’s heart, to teach their mind about these magnificent creatures,” says Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. “But these are animals that are capable of doing what they do in nature.”

Fortunately, experts say there are ways to ensure you and your family’s safety the next time you head to the zoo or a similar facility.

Respect boundaries

“We like zoo visitors to be as responsible for themselves as they would be in any location,” says Elizabeth Herrelko, who manages the animal welfare program at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Even though zoos and other parks take great care to make sure their visitors have a safe and fun experience, that does not mean people should take safety for granted. It’s important that parents keep track of their children at all times and prevent them from climbing on or over fence lines and other boundaries.

There are sadly more than a few examples of why this is necessary, but two recent incidents stand out. In 2012, a two-year-old boy was killed by African wild dogs after he fell into an exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo. One of the dogs was euthanized as a result.

Similarly, keepers were forced to shoot a western lowland gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 to protect a young child that had fallen into the great ape’s enclosure. (Here’s how to talk to kids about animal attacks at zoos.)

“We want to make sure animals stay in the places that they’re supposed to be and humans stay in the places they’re supposed to be,” says Herrelko.

The same advice goes for adult selfie seekers who visit zoos on their quest for that perfect photo. In March 2019, a jaguar tore into a woman’s arm when she climbed over the concrete barrier of a jaguar enclosure at Wildlife World Zoo, outside of Phoenix, Arizona. (Read why people risk their lives for the ultimate selfie.)

Herrelko admits that sometimes the fencing in zoos can make it difficult to see certain animals, and she understands the motivation for getting a better view.

But lifting children onto or above barriers is never a good idea.

Joel Sartore on the Photo Ark

The National Geographic Photo Ark is using the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late. Photo Ark founder Joel Sartore has photographed more than 9,000 species around the world as part of a multiyear effort to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts. Learn how you can get involved here.

“We understand that you know your child best, but it still makes us nervous,” she says. “If something were to happen, we have to take the child’s safety over anybody else’s.”

The golden rule

It’s also important to remember that even though zoo animals are on display, they should be given respect.

“This is the animal’s home,” says Hanna. “You don’t yell. You don’t throw peanuts. You respect its home.” (Read how zoos are building an ark of captive animals.)

A good baseline for acceptable zoo behavior is simply to follow the golden rule and treat animals the way you would want to be treated. That means speaking softly and not banging on glass or other materials to get the animal’s attention.

“If this was your home, would you want someone knocking on your door all the time just to get your attention?” asks Herrelko.

Loud and disruptive noises can also stress zoo animals, which could prevent them from eating, playing, or engaging in other normal behaviors.

“Yes, we are there to look at animals,” she says, “but we are also there to respect them, and learn from them, and be inspired by them.”