Sad. Frustrating. Avoidable. Three words used by the Minnesota Zoo’s collections director to describe the loss of five meerkats to rabies testing, in the wake of a biting incident.
The family, including two parents and their three offspring, were euthanized by lethal injection Thursday night so that their brains could be extracted for the rabies test.
"It's a sad affair," said collections director Tony Fisher Friday as he stood in front of the closed exhibit, "It's frustrating for us. And it's totally avoidable."
The sequence of events ending the destruction of the meerkats began Wednesday when a nine-year-old girl climbed onto a rock wall and reached over a glass barrier and suffered a bite to her finger.
Fisher told KARE-TV that the zoo strives to balance public safety with making the animals accessible in outdoor exhibits. In the meerkat area's five year history, Fisher said, no visitor has been able to get to one of the animals until now.
Fisher described the hurdles the child, who is not being named by the zoo, had to cross to get into harm’s way.
“We designed this step here as a step up so kids could get a better look at the meerkats through the glass,” Fisher said as he pointed to concrete steps that children can take to get from street level up to the eye level of the meerkats.
“She crawled up, over the logs here and up farther up into the concrete and got her body and her hand over that glass and touched the meerkats on the other side.”
The meerkats have been vaccinated for rabies, but that vaccine is only certified for domestic dogs, cats and ferrets. It hasn’t been tested and proven yet to work with wild animals such as meerkats, so as far as the Minnesota Board of Animal Health is concerned the only way to be certain is to test them.
Because of that state policy the only way to spare the animals lives after a biting incident would be for the girl to undergo a series of rabies shots. Fisher said her parents would not agree to shots unless one of the animals came up positive for rabies.
“The family decided not to go with vaccination for the child, and asked for the animals to be euthanized,” explained Fisher.
The five meerkats were put to sleep by zoo staff and their brains sent to a Department of Health lab in Saint Paul for testing.
“They came back negative this morning, and it's kind of what we figured it would be, a very small chance of being positive.”
The African animals belong to the mongoose family and have been a popular attraction at the zoo because they’re active during the day and animated. Or as visitor Mary Wahl of New Brighton described them Friday, “We love seeing the meerkats. That's what the kids love to see. They're cute, and little and fast.”
Fisher added, “Kids are always exploring, doing things, especially at the zoon. That’s what this place is for, to explore and learn. But some people push that further than they should.”
Friday afternoon zoo carpenters could be seen sawing a huge slotted log, as they tested new barriers. It could take a few weeks to come up with a more childproof design. Once the enclosure reopens, Fisher says, it will become home to another family of meerkats now kept indoors at the aardvark exhibit nearby.
Zoo patrons who encountered the “Exhibit Closed” signs with their children Friday reacted strongly upon learning of the meerkat family’s demise.
“I don't know what I'd do, “ said Mary Wahl when asked if she would have made her child undergo rabies shots.
“A nine-year-old should know better, but parents should know better than to let their kids run wild.
Kim Meisinger of West Saint Paul was shepherding five children past the exhibit when her son Jake lept beyond the final concrete step and pressed against the glass.
“Get off of there now!” she hollered.
Another child, clearly aware of what happened to the missing meerkats, piped up and added, “That’s what that girl was doing.”
Meisinger said if one of her children ever suffered a bite at the zoo she’d go ahead with the shots just as a precaution. But she’d hope to avoid the situation altogether.
”It's hard to watch children, but you definitely need to be aware of what's going on and where your children are. You forget you're at a zoo. Parents need to be right there saying, you know, those are wild animals.”
We also asked Susan Weinands of Pipestone whether she’d have her son Jonathan go through shots to save the meerkats’ lives.
“Well first off,” she replied, “If he had his hand over the cage he would have gotten a whack in the butt!”
Dennis Vandenbroeke, visiting from Clear Lake, Iowa had no trouble reaching a conclusion.
“I think that's what should happen. They should have had the girl go through the shots because she'd get over that.”
The Zoo’s Fisher says he has no choice but to respect the family’s wishes. He hopes the lesson learned going forward is that people need to stay on their side of exhibit walls.
“In our exhibits, with our wild animals, we try to keep our animals wild,” he explained, “We try to get them to exhibit behaviors they do in the wild. So when you do try to make contact with them they will bite, they will defend themselves, and be aggressive at times.”
The Food and Drug Administration’s fact sheet on rabies shots says only a small percentage of the population has a severe reaction to rabies vaccines. And the FDA points out the shots are far less painful than they once were. Now, rather than 25-30 injections in the stomach, the fact sheet says it’s a matter of five to ten shots most often administered to the arm.
By John Croman, KARE 11 News.
(Copyright KARE-TV Minneapolis)