Bear fatally shot after escaping exhibit, injuring keeper at Jacksonville Zoo

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 5-year-old North American black bear that escaped an exhibit behind the scenes at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Wednesday evening and “engaged” with a zookeeper was fatally shot by the zoo’s lethal weapons team, officials said.

The zoo would not elaborate on what happened during the encounter, but officials said the keeper was hospitalized with injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening.

According to Kelly Rouillard, director of marketing for the Zoo and Gardens, the bear, named Johnny, escaped an exhibit behind the scenes just after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Johnny engaged with the keeper, who called out for help, and another staff member heard them and made an emergency call. Rouillard said the zoo’s lethal weapons team arrived within seconds.

“Emergency protocols were put in place. The bear was shot and killed,” Rouillard said. “The keeper at this time does not appear to have life-threatening injuries, but was transported to the hospital for further evaluation.”

Rouillard said Johnny had been at the zoo since May 2017.

She said using a tranquilizer would not have been effective, and in a situation like this, the priority is saving human life.

Details as to exactly how the zookeeper was injured remained unclear. Rouillard could only say there was “an engagement” between the staff member and the bear. She said she didn’t believe the zoo had video of the incident.

The zoo will be open under its normal hours Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with ZooLights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The incident will be investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Captive Wildlife Office.

In July 2021, a man who jumped over a gate of the Range of the Jaguar exhibit at the zoo was clawed by a Jaguar after sticking his hand into the pen. The man, said to be in his 20s, was hospitalized for non-life-threatening injuries.

In February 2019, a zookeeper was injured when she was struck by the horn of a rhinoceros during a routine training session. She was taken to a hospital for evaluation. The FWC, which has jurisdiction over wildlife facilities in the state, found Robie was separated from the rhino by horizontal bars, but fell forward when something spooked the 50-year-old rhino named Archie. She was initially struck, then struck again once she was in the pen with the 4,000-pound animal.

In 2018, there were two incidents. A lion entered an exhibit that was being cleaned by a staff member, who didn’t know the lion was there. That staff member escaped injury by jumping into a moat. In the other incident, an elephant broke free of its enclosure for a short period of time and was guided back inside.

A statement from the zoo reads:

“At 5 pm tonight, one of our North American black bears escaped the exhibit and engaged with a zookeeper behind the scenes. An emergency radio call was initiated and our lethal weapons team responded immediately. Our highest priority is always the safety of human lives, therefore, the bear was shot and killed. We will be conducting an ongoing investigation over the coming days and weeks. We do not take this lightly. It is profoundly painful when we have a loss of an animal, especially under circumstances such as this.”

Florida zoo injuries

This is not the first time a person has been hurt by an animal at a Florida zoo.

One year ago, a cleaning crew member jumped a barrier at the Naples zoo and stuck his arm into the tiger enclosure.

The tiger grabbed on and would not let go.

The man was seriously hurt, and the tiger, which was critically endangered, was killed.

Because of that incident, FWC held a series of hearings to make changes to how animal escapes bites and injuries are reported.

A month ago, FWC published proposed changes to reporting these incidents.

For “Class 1″ animals, which include lions, jaguars and bears, there is no current requirement to report incidents of injury. FWC proposed that any injuries or bites must be reported if there is serious bodily injury to a licensee or experienced person and beyond basic first aid for anyone else.

FWC said the change is important because, currently, it is unaware when repeated escapes happen because of limited reporting.

There’s no word yet on when the changes could take effect.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.