I was working on getting the new hire set up. All of the basics - keys, radio, uniforms - while at the same time trying to go over five or six other details in the back of my head. As a result, I didn't hear until the third time when she asked me what was in the giant safe in the corner of the office.
"That's where we keep the guns," I replied.
"Oh, you mean the tranquilizers?"
"No, the real guns. Shotguns. Rifles. Those guns."
"Oh." All of the sudden, our super enthusiastic new keeper looked like she wanted to be anywhere but in this room with this safe.
If I was looking to comfort her (and I'm a cantankerous jerk at work, so I wasn't), I could have told her that the safe had been opened and the guns removed maybe a dozen times total over the course of my years at the zoo. Two or three times a gun was taken out as part of a procedure with a dangerous animal - a veterinary procedure, an enclosure move - as a safety precaution. The other times were all escape drills.
Not once since I've worked in a zoo setting have I seen a staff member draw a firearm with any intent of having to shoot an animal. Even in the rare occurrences of dangerous animal escapes that I have observed, the animal in question was always recaptured before guns could be even retrieved.
None of which isn't to say that such incidents don't happen. One of the first From the News posts I made on this blog detailed the fatal shooting of an escaped baboon at a British zoo.
Whenever such actions unfold, the public outcry is usually deafening. Why didn't the zoo use tranquilizers, is the most common question. The fact is, while tranquilizers are the ideal solution, they can also be an unreliable one. Their use is equal parts art and science, and it can be very difficult to determine what dosage will have what effect on an animal, depending on its species, sex, age, weight, and, perhaps most importantly, current state of mind. Nor are they instantaneous in their effectiveness - an animal will not go down the second it feels the prick of the dart. A darted tiger or bear, especially one confused, angered, and full of adrenaline, is perfectly capable of shredding a keeper (or bystander) open before (or if) the tranquilizer takes effect.
If a person's life is in imminent danger, or an animal is about to leave the relative confined security of the zoo and leave the grounds, a bullet might be the only option. Some zoos categorize their animals as to which to bring out the guns for. Others leave full responsibility for decisions up to an elect gun team, which often trains with local SWAT teams.
Due to my lousy vision and even worse depth perception, I've never been invited to join, though I do train with them from time to time. Presumably, me with a gun is more dangerous than a rampaging lion.
No keeper wants to see an animal that they care for and nurture killed. Certainly none wants to be the one who pulled the trigger. Still, our affection for our animals is often coupled with a more than passing familiarity with their power and the danger that they can pose, especially when they are out of their element and in full fight-or-flight mode.
I'll seldom question the judgement of one of the keepers who has had to make that call as to whether to shoot or not. Mostly, I'm just glad the decision has never come down to me.