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Calgary Zoo defends itself after gorilla finds knife in enclosure

June 19, 2009 |  9:13 pm

Gorilla with a knifeWe love gorillas from afar but certainly wouldn't want to run into one in a dark alley.  How much more terrifying would it be, then, to encounter a gorilla wielding a knife?

It sounds crazy, but just such an event happened this week at the Calgary Zoo in the Canadian province of Alberta.  A female western lowland gorilla named Barika apparently found a paring knife that had been left in the enclosure by a keeper who'd been cutting hoses and ropes.  "He dropped it," zoo spokesperson Laurie Herron told the Calgary Herald. "One of the other keepers or a volunteer came and told him that the gorillas had a knife and he was like, 'Oh, crap.' "

Our thoughts -- if not our wording choice -- exactly. Barika picked up the knife, examined itand apparently pointed it in the direction of another gorilla before setting it down.  The gorillas were quickly brought into the indoor portion of their enclosure and the knife was retrieved by zoo staff.  No gorillas were harmed and no humans got near Barika while she held the knife, but even so, the incident is certainly troubling. 

The zoo seemed inclined to downplay its severity, however.  Cathy Gaviller, its director of conservation education and research, said the shock many expressed over the incident was based on a human understanding of what a knife is; a gorilla, lacking the social context, wouldn't see the object as a weapon. 

Furthermore, Gaviller told the Herald, it wasn't "pure luck" that kept the gorillas from being hurt by the knife.  "They are naturally curious but also cautious and intelligent enough to see the knife is sharp."  The zoo says it plans to review key procedures, but the keeper who dropped the knife won't be punished.

The Canadian Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, a national organization that regulates Canada's zoos, says it will investigate the incident, which came just over a year after 41 cownose rays died at the zoo.  Zoo officials later admitted that their own lack of expertise with caring for marine life coupled with equipment failure caused the rays' deaths from suffocation, and it was recently announced that the exhibit will close for financial reasons.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Heike Scheffler / Associated Press

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