I-TEAM: 3 incidents in year prompt review of Jacksonville zoo's safety

Association of Zoos and Aquariums investigates Northside attraction

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is being inspected and the Northside attraction's accreditation is being reviewed after three safety incidents within a year, the News4Jax I-TEAM has learned. 

In February, Archie the rhino struck a zookeeper, sending her to the hospital. Before that, in October, a lion got through an open door and charged an employee who had to jump in a moat to get away. And an African elephant Ali got out of his cage, causing a code red lockdown, in June.

The zoo was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing or negligence by the state and feds, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the gold standard for zoos across the country and accredits those who meet its standards, is doing an investigation in light of the incidents. 

"They were all things that happened that should not have happened," said Tony Vecchio, executive director of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. "We take that very seriously."

On Monday, the I-TEAM spoke with the head of the zoo after learning the AZA is inspecting the operation and reviewing its accreditation. 

"The fact that several things happen in a one year period, they want to come down and visit us to make sure that there is no pattern to this," Vecchio said. "They’re hoping (it's) just a coincidence. We are already sure it is just a coincidence."

The Jacksonville zoo has been accredited since the 1980s, which is one of the longest tenures in the country. Vecchio said he’s confident it will stay that way because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the United States Department of Agriculture already investigated and cleared the zoo.

"We want the entire zoo staff to feel this is a safe place to work and point out anything that is not safe," Vecchio said. 

Spring is the busiest time of year for the popular attraction and Vecchio said it's business as usual, except there are more safety precautions in place. He said visitors have nothing to worry about. 

"The zoo is a great place," Vecchio said. "We make safety our top priority." 

The Bryant family, who came all the way from New Smyrna Beach to go to the Jacksonville zoo on Monday, said they'll wait for the results. 

"I feel safe," Eric Bryant said. "But I’d like to see what goes on today."

The executive director said the zoo has tightened some of its safety protocols, hired a consultant to review security and is installing new lock and key systems.

News4Jax emailed the AZA, but had not received a response as of Monday afternoon. 

As for the zookeeper injured by the rhino, according to Vecchio, she's doing well. He said she has made a full recovery and has returned to work at the zoo.

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