Brevard Zoo considers netting, safety measures before reopening rhino encounter

Brevard Zoo officials are still working with Florida wildlife officials to improve the barrier safety at the hands-on rhinoceros encounter after a toddler stumbled through earlier this month and was seriously injured.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released its final report Wednesday of the Jan. 1 incident after interviewing the family involved, zookeepers, medical staffers and zoo officials.

The 21-month-old girl was with her parents and two zookeepers when she fell between the bars and into the exhibit with the rhinos. The report states when the two female rhinos saw she was there, they pushed her repeatedly with their snouts. The girl was in the area with the animals for about 10 seconds as her father, mother and zoo staff members worked to pull her out, according to state wildlife investigators.

The girl suffered contusions to her chest, abdomen, back and the area behind her ear. She also had a bump on the back of her head, a bruised lung and a lacerated liver, according to the report.

“We feel absolutely terrible this happened while she and her family were visiting the zoo,” Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten said.

A zoo spokesperson said the FWC report shows the rhino enclosure and barrier were still in compliance with the original approval from March 2009. However, the zoo plans to work with the FWC to add an additional protective barrier to prevent small children from stepping or falling between the poles, which are about a foot apart. During the encounter, which hasn’t been offered since the girl was hurt, children and adults are accompanied by zookeepers to touch and brush the rhinos through the steel posts.

Winsten said the zoo is considering installing netting around the poles to prevent any guests from entering the area with the rhinos. The netting would be 36 inches tall from the ground up, according to zoo officials.

“I think our lesson is: even if you have nine years of history, you can always make things safer,” Winsten told reporters a day after the FWC report was released.

The encounter won’t reopen until all safety measures are in place and approved by the FWC.

“Our zoo is a place of wonder and joy, and we feel terrible that this accident happened at our facility,” Winsten said. “We are committed to always improving our safety measures, which is why we are going to make changes to the area so that this can never happen again.”