FWC report reveals new information in Dec. 2022 bear attack involving Jacksonville zookeeper

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News4JAX.com via FFWCC

FWC photo shows the transfer corridor.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.Some may find the details included in this report to be graphic in nature. Discretion is advised.

A report filed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reveals new information in the Dec. 21 incident at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in which a zookeeper was mauled by an American black bear.

As was previously reported by the News4JAX I-TEAM, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office stated the door to the bear enclosure was left open when the attack occurred. The zookeeper suffered lacerations to her head, back and thighs, according to a police report.

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The FWC report contains an interview with a staff veterinarian for the zoo, who said the bear — known as Johnny — had been captured due to its behavior of continually going to humans for food. The bear was given to the zoo to be used for educational purposes, and the veterinarian stated that the bear exhibited anxiety and anxiety-related behaviors. She said the bear was given Zylkene, a medicine that uses milk proteins to produce a calming effect.

The veterinarian said she heard the code red alert over the radio. She said she went to a transport van with members of the animal recapture team to prepare an immobilization dart to use on the black bear. The report states that when they arrived, another staff member was yelling, “There’s a human! There’s a human! He’s eating her!” The veterinarian said that was when another staffer, identified as a curator, determined lethal force was necessary, and the bear was shot four times, the report states.

As the original JSO report found, the swinging door to the bear enclosure was left open in error. Usually, a transfer corridor is put into place so the bears can be rotated. The zookeeper was reportedly feeding the bear, Johnny, and another one, Claire.

On the day of the attack, the FWC noted, the zoo was understaffed, so the bears were not going to be rotated. The zookeeper told investigators that she opened the door “by mistake, out of habit,” without the transfer corridor being in place.

The report states that after putting out the food for Johnny, she was in the process of getting the food for Claire, when she heard the bears fighting through a common fence. She went to check it out and saw that Johnny had left his enclosure. When Johnny saw the zookeeper, the report states, he ran right for her and knocked her to the ground. She rolled over to protect her face and vital organs.

Staffers, the report states, heard her screaming, and started throwing things at the bear, honking horns and spraying a fire extinguisher. Johnny started dragging the zookeeper toward the rear of the den house.

When the lethal weapons team arrived, the FWC says, a staffer shot the bear while he was still on top of the zookeeper.

The FWC report notes that the zookeeper was given a warning for failure to maintain captive wildlife in a safe condition.

The report by the FWC also notes that during an inspection in October, the bear enclosures were found to have an insufficient-sized pool. The curator responsible for the bear exhibit was giving a written warning, and the zoo began construction of a larger pool.

Jacksonville Zoo implements security & safety enhancements

In response to the incident, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens issued a news release, saying the decision to shoot the bear was made to save the zookeeper’s life. It states that its protocols are based on consultation with other accredited institutions, but that the finds prompted the zoo to review its internal procedures and deploy further safety practices.

“Human error is something we need to guard against to ensure animal wellbeing and employee safety. We are conducting a zoo-wide assessment of our exhibits and deploying extra precautionary methods so that this type of incident is prevented in the future,” David Hagan, chief zoological officer, said in a prepared statement. “Our primary focus has been and will continue to be safe interactions between our animal care team and animals.”

Improvements include the installation of a two-lock, two key system to the bear exhibit, which has been in place at the zoo for exhibits that include lions and tigers. It requires two members to lock and unlock exhibit doors.

“On behalf of our board of directors, I want to express our appreciation to team members for their quick actions during the incident, " President and CEO Dr. Jeff Ettling said in a prepared statement. “Understandably, our team is still grieving. We love and respect our animals, so the result of this incident has had an enormous impact on all of us. Having said that, we are also extremely grateful that our zookeeper is doing well on the road to recovery. Mistakes can happen, and we are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for all.”

About the Authors:

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