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Tot hurt by rhinos was in zoo enclosure about 10 seconds, report finds

Florida rhino exhibit closed to visitors
Florida rhino exhibit closed to visitors after child fell in 01:23

Melbourne, Fla. - The toddler who fell into the Brevard Zoo rhinoceros exhibit on New Year's Day was only in the enclosure for a matter of seconds and suffered serious injuries when the rhinos were startled and pushed the girl with their snouts, according to the final report issued by state wildlife investigators.

CBS Orlando affiliate WKMG-TV reports the girl and her parents were participating in a hands-on experience with the rhinos, accompanied by zookeepers, when she slipped between the poles and entered the yard with the 2-ton animals.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released the full report Wednesday after interviewing the 21-month-old girl's parents, zookeepers and other zoo officials to determine what led to the incident.

Among the report's key takeaways:

-- The girl was in the rhino enclosure for about 10 seconds.

-- Two female rhinos became spooked and repeatedly pushed the girl with their snouts.

-- The child suffered internal injuries and head and body bruises

-- There was no video captured the incident.

-- There was a small delay in response time due to a radio signal issue with the zoo base

Brevard Zoo rhinoceros exhibit where a 2-year-old girl was injured after falling into it on Jan. 1, 2019 Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Fla. / Wkmg-tv

Margaret "Peggy" Kunkle was named in the 59-page report because she contacted investigators to report a similar incident she said happened 10 years ago when she visited the rhinoceros encounter with her grandchildren.

"They should have done something about it a long time ago because I talked to them when my granddaughter, Hailee, who was 5 at the time, slipped through the bars," Kunkle said.

Kunkle said her granddaughter was brushing a rhino when she slipped through the steel bars.

"All of a sudden, I turned around and saw her and about had a heart attack, and I just reached for her and grabbed her and snatched her," Kunkle said.

The detailed report found that, before the encounter with the rhinos, the zookeeper explained the rules to the family and the parents listened and understood them before entering the exhibit. Two zookeepers accompanied the family into the enclosure and said the parents paid attention to their daughter the whole time.

About 10 minutes into the rhino experience, the girl was using a brush to touch one of the female rhinos when she stumbled and fell face-first through the bars, the FWC report said.

"The bars are about a foot part, but there needs to be more of them or they need to be closer together. I don't want this to happen to anyone else," the toddler's father later told a state wildlife investigator.

The father immediately reached in and grabbed the child and was able to lift her up but not out of the enclosure, according to the report. The female rhinos, Uzuri and Kibibi, turned due to the commotion and faced the bars head-on before repeatedly pressing against the girl with their muzzles, zookeepers told FWC investigators.

"It is believed the child's injuries were sustained when two female rhinoceros contacted the child and began pressing her into the metal poles of the enclosure," the report said.

The girl suffered contusions to the 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.

When she was pulled from the exhibit, she was whimpering, conscious and didn't have any visible injuries. Photos of the girl included in the report show bruising to her legs, arms, chest and head.

When an FWC investigator arrived at Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital, they found the girl sedated and crying out due to pain.

Kunkle said she was devastated to learn of what happened and regrets not doing more.

"It made me very upset because it was preventable," Kunkle said.

The toddler's mother suffered some cuts and bruising to her arm as she tried to pull the girl from the enclosure. She was later treated at Orlando Regional Medical Center and released.

The zookeepers immediately tried to call the zoo base over the radio for paramedics but had trouble with the connection. A zookeeper then called the zoo curator, and the group took the child to the administrative offices. Paramedics arrived five minutes later.

Zoo officials didn't have any record of any other incidents at the popular hands-on encounter, according to the report.

As for Kunkle, she said something needs to be done before another child gets hurt.

"They need to close that exhibit until they get that rectified. They should've done it when I reported it 10 years ago," Kunkle said.

Brevard Zoo officials said they will modify the close-up exhibit to prevent another accident and were waiting on the FWC to approve the changes.

Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten said the zoo's internal review was open to adding horizontal bars to the vertical barriers on the enclosure.

The zoo said told WKMG at the time of the incident that the rhinos involved wouldn't be punished in any way.

The zoo is about 50 miles southeast of Orlando.

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