Local summer camps planning extra precaution for field trips

YMCA director: Kids can disappear very quickly.

Local school groups and camps are among the 1.6 million annual visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden each year. And as summer programs kick off for area youngsters, some leaders say extra precautions will be taken during field trips, including those to the Cincinnati Zoo.

The Cincinnati Police Department is investigating the circumstances surrounding a 3-year-old crawling through a barrier Saturday and falling into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo, which led to the animal being shot to death to protect the child.

A federal investigation is also planned into the incident, according to a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Those responsible for children on summer field trips said safety is the No. 1 priority. To that end, they take special steps that include adding parents and volunteers on field trips, dressing the children in bright shirts, periodic counts the heads of the children and arming staff with the emergency contact and medical information of every child.

Marie Edwards, program director for the summer camp at the Robert “Sonny” Hill Community Center in Middletown, said the required ratio of children to staff is 13 to 1 in the classroom, but on field trips, like the one planned this summer to the Cincinnati Zoo, Edwards said additional volunteers are required to reduce that ratio.

Edwards said since she wasn’t at the zoo Saturday, she wouldn’t add to the speculation fueled on social media who was at fault in the incident.

“But my heart is saddened,” she said. “They had to do what they did.”

Sherry Emerick, executive director of the Atrium YMCA, said on field trips, the ratio of staff to students is 3 to 1 and that doesn’t include additional “floaters” who aren’t responsible for children.

She said the staff also stops and counts the children every 10 to 15 minutes and every time the children change activities. There also is a staff member at the beginning and end of every line of children, she said.

Those safety steps, she said, are important because “kids can disappear very quickly.”

The No. 1 rule: “You never take your eyes off of them for one moment.”

Emerick, a parent and animal lover, said she understands the debate Saturday’s incident has created.

“Accidents can happen” said Emerick, who added zoo security “couldn’t risk” the gorilla killing the boy, who was treated and released from a Cincinnati hospital.

“It was a human,” she said. “They had to do it.”

Nationally known conservationist and animal expert Jeff Corwin said parents need to understand the potential dangers associated with zoos.

“Zoos aren’t your babysitter,” he told a Boston television station Tuesday. “Take a break from the cellphone, the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time for this kid, this little boy to find himself in that situation. Ultimately it’s the gorilla that’s paid this price.”