News & Politics

Are Zebras Running Amok at the National Zoo?

A report on the incident in which a zebra bit an animal keeper reveals deeper problems with the stripey beasts.

They're out of control! Photograph via Shutterstock.

The National Zoo needs learn how to control its zebras, considering the findings in a safety report following up last month’s bloody incident in which one of the stripey equids chomped on an animal keeper.

The November 18 bite, which left the unnamed zoo employee seriously injured, “appears to be the result of human error,” according to the safety report. The beast, a 10-year-old male named Gumu, was able to encounter the animal keeper because the gates separating the zebra pen and the stall where the keeper was working were not properly secured.

“This is a breach of protocol,” the report reads. “The animal management protocol states that humans and dangerous animals, such as a Grevy’s zebra, should never be in the same space together.”

According to the saftey report, the zoo employee was working alone that morning, possibly on cleaning out a stall as indicated by the wheelbarrow, rake, and shovel in the enclosure. He also had biscuits in his pockets, though the zoo is unsure if that contributed to Gumu’s attack. But the report suggests the staffer should have been more careful. Grevy’s zebras are one of the zoo’s more aggressive specimens, and Gumu is known very ornery even for the species.

The biting incident also resulted in the death of a one-year-old Dama gazelle that snapped its neck after running into a wall out of shock when Gumu sunk his teeth into human flesh.

But the zoo’s zebra problems run deeper than one bite. The safety report also includes a December 29, 2012 episode in which a zebra making its way from its public viewing area to its off-exhibit habitat wandered into a secondary holding area where it was not supposed to tread. As with the encounter with Gumu, this was also attributed to human error.

And on December 8, 2008, two animals that are not supposed to be in the same space were placed in a public viewing area. The creatures were separated before anyone or anything could get hurt, but what were the animals? A gazelle and—you guessed it—a zebra.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.