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Texas zoo inspections reveal incidents involving animal treatment, escapes, deaths

Texas zoo inspections reveal incidents involving animal treatment, escapes, deaths
Texas zoo inspections reveal incidents involving animal treatment, escapes, deaths 05:31

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - An in-depth look at some major Texas zoos through inspection reports provides a historical look at incidents at the Dallas Zoo over the last decade, and it appears to put one North Texas zoo in the spotlight but not for reasons you might expect. 

The United States Department of Agriculture licenses and inspects zoos. The I-Team requested inspections, citations, and complaints for five Texas zoos including Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. 

We obtained more than 400-documents referencing animal treatments, escapes, and deaths.



In 2011, the records reference a chimp and a spider monkey escape at the zoo which led the USDA to note two citations: "Handling of Animals" and "Employee" issues involving staff numbers and training. The inspector states "The licensee need to re-evaluate the current employees, training, and supervision in the great ape area. He also tells the Zoo to "correct the problem allowing animals to escape."

In 2014, the inspection report states a "keeper error allowed a female lion to escape her enclosure…." The inspector cites the zoo for "Handling of Animals" stating "This facility needs to ensure these events don't happen in the future."

The documents show the USDA has visited the zoo at least 14 times since 2011. According to the I-Team's analysis, inspector found non-compliant items at 14% of the visits.


In the same time period, our analysis shows inspectors found non-compliant items during 23% of their visits to the Austin Zoo. 

In San Antonio, non-compliant items were found during 25% of their visits.

And at the Houston Zoo, non-complaint items were noted at 50% of their inspections.

The majority of the items at Austin, San Antonio, and Houston all involved citations referencing "Facility" or "Sanitation Issues." 


The records indicate the Fort Worth Zoo is the only of the zoos with only one citation in the ten-year analysis. 


In 2011, an inspector reported an "Outdoor Housing Facilities" citation regarding the size of the lemur exhibit and its ability to protect the animals. The inspector stated, "Additional shade needs to be provided for these animals."

The I-Team reached out to the Fort Worth Zoo to find out how it has maintained this nearly perfect record. 

A spokesperson would not talk on the record but sent us the following statement:

"…all accredited institutions have dedicated staff and animal care teams committed to the safety and security of their guests, staff and animals. I can only speak for our Zoo, which has an exemplary staff that works hard each day to maintain our record. I would give credit to our staff, especially our top animal management team with 150+ years of combined experience."


Next, the I-Team turned to the American Association of Zookeepers to get a better understanding of the hundreds of documents we obtained and to dive deeper into how these zoos compare to each other.

"When you're subjected to a USDA inspection and the vet comes in… it's very subjective," says Ed Hansen. 

Hansen is the CEO of the Association. He's been a zookeeper for more than 45-years.

Referring to the Dallas and Fort Worth Zoos, Hansen said both are top-rated exhibitors. "I will tell you that both of those are quality institutions, well-run institutions and well respected in the industry." 

Hansen said he ran a small zoo with 15 acres and a small staff. "We would routinely have two to three issues that we couldn't immediately resolve or two or three issues that needed further investigation."  

He says the citations in the documents the I-Team showed him are "common."

"In larger zoos, when we are caring for anywhere from 500 to 1,000 animals on any given day, there's going to be something that's not up to inspection standards." 

The I-Team asked Hansen if the Dallas Zoo has a good record. He said, "…absolutely! A good record."


The documents the I-Team obtained reveal the Fort Worth Zoo also had zero "Animal Welfare Complaints" from 2011 to 2021, the last year for which records are available. 

Animal Welfare Complaints are those customers, advocacy groups, or attorneys typically file with the USDA. 

The documents we obtained contain three Animal Welfare Complaints filed against the Dallas Zoo.

Among them, in 2016, four complainants detailed their concerns about five African elephants which had been flown into Texas. 

The USDA found no "no non-compliant" items after investigating this concern.

In 2021, a complaint filed by a person who claimed to be a Dallas Zoo member raised concerns about the safety of animals. The complainant provided texts and emails, allegedly from zookeepers, referencing a list of animals which had died in the last few years. The list included giraffes, chimpanzees, and a zebra. 

Following an investigation into this complaint, the USDA inspector found no non-compliant items, no wrongdoing. 

He stated, "Records for all deaths since 2019 were reviewed during a recent inspection. According to the records, all deaths associated within illness were identified in a timely manner and adequate vet care was provided. Some of the deaths were accidents that could not be foreseen."


Hansen is quick to say the mystery at the Dallas Zoo is not one that could have been "foreseen."

"This falls outside of a zoo inspection…. These are malicious acts."

He separates the findings in the USDA inspections from what has recently taken place at the Dallas Zoo.

"…an animal welfare issue is completely different than what you're dealing with here. This is something completely different. This is malicious behavior and damaging of city and zoo property and now theft of an endangered species." 


At the same time, Hansen says change is needed and it is likely coming. He says zoos are already working to prevent these acts in the future.

The veteran zookeeper says exhibitors around the world have their eyes on Dallas right now. "I guarantee zoos across the country and maybe even further …are taking steps to heightened awareness." 

Hansen says zoos will especially be on alert about suspicious activity. "You know…people that say they're lost and they're in places they are not supposed to be."


Zoos may soon be asking for your help also.

If you visit a zoo and see any suspicious activity, you can file a complaint with the USDA here.


"At this time, we won't be able to accommodate your interview request. Also, we don't expand beyond what is already included in the inspection reports."

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