Cincinnati Zoo moving forward with Warren County cheetah plan

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Selfie by Larry Budd previewing my cheetah plan story

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

No indication of changes despite backlash from gorilla incident.Safety measures for cheetah breeding center under review.


In the aftermath of the killing of a gorilla to save a child who ventured into the enclosed exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, we examine the role social media played — where people strongly debated the zoo’s decision — and a “change in attitude” towards how wild animals are treated.

The Cincinnati Zoo still plans to breed and run cheetahs in new facilities to be built in Warren County, despite the killing of a gorilla to protect a 3-year-old boy who climbed through a barrier separating people and exotic animals.

“Our plans for the Warren County facility have not changed,” Michelle Curley, communications director for the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, said in a statement Friday.

Warren County officials said they are reviewing safety precautions planned by the zoo for its new cheetah breeding facility, set to open later this year and featuring a close encounter area for visitors.

While zoo officials continued to respond to the gorilla incident — which has sparked worldwide reaction — staffers have submitted an emergency services response plan for the Warren County center. The plan, formed in collaboration with county emergency services officials, includes an alarm system triggered when gates aren't closed properly at the new cheetah breeding facility, expected to open by early fall in Warren County.

Mike Yetter, the county’s supervisor of zoning, said the county was close to issuing a building permit for the project. It will be the first phase of the zoo’s plans to move facilities from Clermont County to a former farm east of Interstate 75 in Warren County.

“It’s really a done deal. It’s been approved. All they have to do is meet the conditions of approval,” Yetter said.

The breeding facility at Nickel and Hamilton roads — just south of the Ohio 63 interchange at I-75 — is to feature two 10-foot fences, cantilevered at the top, buried 3 feet in the ground and electrified, in a secluded area within about 600 acres donated to the zoo.

Video surveillance is to enable the caretaker to keep an eye on the entire compound. As many as 16 cheetahs are to breed and raise cubs in the 750-foot by 240-foot rectangular “containment” area.

In addition to cheetahs, hoof stock, small cats and birds are also permitted.

During the permitting process, residents expressed concerns about safety, but county officials said they had no new contacts since the May 28 incident involving the gorilla at the downtown zoo.

Security changes not expected

Jean Benning lives across the street from the planned breeding facility in Turtlecreek Twp., near the Butler-Warren county line. Despite the gorilla incident, she expressed confidence in the safety measures and looked forward to the zoo moving into the neighborhood.

“I’d much rather have that than more urban sprawl out here,” Benning said. “The zoo has been very hands-on with all the neighbors.”

County Commissioner Tom Grossmann said he did not anticipate any modifications to the Warren County plan due to the gorilla incident.

“I don’t think so,” Grossmann said. “It’s just highly unfortunate.”

On Thursday, the zoo announced it has installed a higher barrier to keep visitors from entering its gorilla exhibit.

A 42-inch barrier was added in anticipation of next week's reopening of Gorilla World, where zoo staffers shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old endangered lowland silverback gorilla on May 28 to protect the boy who had climbed the previous barrier, through 5 feet of bushes, into a moat near the gorilla.

The gorilla was shot after grabbing and dragging the boy.

“In the case of this incident, which involved a child and a critically endangered animal, our collective goal is to take steps to assure it doesn’t happen again,” Kris Vehrs, interim president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the organization that inspects zoo exhibits, said in a press release.

Opened in 1978, the Gorilla World exhibit was billed as the nation’s first “bar-less” outdoor gorilla habitat in the nation.

The popular exhibit is scheduled to reopen Tuesday with the new barrier, prompted by what the zoo said was the first incident there in its 38-year history. Solid wood beams also will be added at the top and bottom of the barrier with knotted rope netting, although the exhibit previously passed inspections by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“Our exhibit goes above and beyond standard safety requirements, but in light of what happened, we have modified the outer public barrier to make entry even more difficult,” said zoo director Thane Maynard.

Cincinnati police have not filed any charges in the case and have forwarded their investigation to Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to review and decide if the boy's parents should face charges.

Cheetah run could be built within two years

Plans are already underway for the next phase of the zoo's Warren County development. In April, zoo officials said Warren County's new "Cheetah Run & Encounter" would feature a 250-yard run where "Cat Ambassadors," cheetahs raised and specially trained for human interaction, would chase lures through obstacle courses.The project could be completed within two years.

County officials hope it will provide another tourist attraction. No construction schedule has been developed, Curley said Friday.

The zoo is expected to receive $250,000 in state funds for the cheetah run.