Jacksonville zookeeper viciously attacked by bear suffered lacerations on head, back, thighs: police report

FWC, OSHA investigating bear attack

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.Editors’ note: Some of the details in this story might be difficult to hear. Discretion is advised.

The 35-year-old zookeeper who was viciously attacked Wednesday by a 5-year-old North American black bear at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens suffered many lacerations on her head, back and thighs, according to a police report obtained Thursday by News4JAX.

The incident report from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office states that the door to the bear enclosure was opened when the attack occurred.

“The bear came out of the opened gate and went directly” to the zookeeper, who was then attacked, the report said.

According to Kelly Rouillard, director of marketing for the zoo, the bear, named Johnny, escaped an exhibit behind the scenes just after 5 p.m. Wednesday and “engaged with a zookeeper behind the scenes” who called out for help.

“The help call was heard by another team member who was close by who made the emergency call to initiate the weapons team,” Rouillard said.

A witness told police that she and her coworkers began throwing items at the bear to get him away from the zookeeper. The zoo’s lethal weapons team was notified by radio.

A member of the lethal weapons team said he saw the animal “actively attacking: the zookeeper when he arrived. He told police that he was waiting for the veterinarian team to get a tranquilizer gun ready but feared for the zookeeper’s life, saying “the bear continued to viciously attack,” when he fired four rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun into the bear’s head, chest and back. He reported that the bear retreated to the back of the enclosure, where he collapsed and died.

“Our animal care team has cared for these animals for years, so this is something that is very disheartening for us to have to face a situation like this,” said Rouillard.

The report notes that the bear did not have its canine teeth — the long ones that can do the most damage. Rouillard said Johnny had been at the zoo since May 2017.

According to the report, the zookeeper was transported to UF Health Jacksonville hospital downtown with injuries that were not life-threatening at the time. She is expected to survive, but there was no update Friday on how she’s doing.

PREVIOUS STORY: Bear fatally shot after escaping exhibit, injuring keeper at Jacksonville zoo

A statement from the zoo reads:

“At 5:10 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.”

The zoo was open under its normal hours Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with ZooLights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., but the exhibit for Johnny is now empty.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Captive Wildlife Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the incident.

Jacksonville zoo injuries

Before Wednesday’s incident, the Jacksonville zoo had gone nearly 18 months since the last animal-human encounter.

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.

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 Author:

I-TEAM and general assignment reporter