Zoo to address gate issue raised by USDA





Lee Richardson Zoo will be going through some changes starting in the next couple of months in response to a directive by a federal agency for the zoo to address open and unattended gates.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has regulatory and licensing authority over the zoo, including fines and closure if warranted by infractions, has concerns that two gates at the zoo are not attended at all times the zoo is open to the public, according to a memo provided to the Garden City Commission.

The USDA is giving the zoo up to a year to create a plan to address a requirement that gates either be attended at all times when the zoo is open, or be self-closing after each vehicle goes through.

Both USDA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the zoo's accrediting association, made comments over the past two to three years that the unattended vehicle gate at Fifth Street might become an issue with USDA, but had not made a formal mandate until now, the memo states.

Kathy Sexson, zoo director, said Wednesday that there have been a lot of interpretations of regulations by USDA over the past few years, and the agency has finally made a decision that the zoo's Fifth Street gate either needs to be attended or kept closed at all times.

"The ways they interpret their regulations have kind of varied across the country. Due to comments from all the different places they inspect, they have been trying to be more uniform, so there have been a lot of changes in how they interpret regulations," she said.

Sexson said the regulation is the same. It calls for a perimeter fence around facilities, which the zoo has always had, but now the USDA has changed its interpretation about how the rule applies to the zoo's vehicle gate.

"They've never had a problem with the gate being open. They probably took it for granted, as did we," she said. "Now they look at it and say it's a problem. They have the ability to fine us, or shut us down if we don't comply. They just want any gates that open into the zoo to be observed by a person, or to remain shut."

Essentially, Sexson said, the reasoning is security, whether it's animals escaping, animals such as dogs coming in, or people intent on causing problems. The zoo has emergency plans and performs drills that cover things like an animal escaping. In that situation, all the gates are immediately closed, she said.

"We feel we've dealt with it well over the years, but obviously they feel that it's an issue," she said.

On Tuesday, the city commission approved a recommendation from the zoo advisory board to make several changes over the next year, with some taking place as soon as September.

The recommendation includes:

* Hiring a third gate attendant for the Fourth Street vehicle entrance while the gate is open. Three attendants will share hours year-round, and there will no longer be free winter admission for vehicles. This starts Sept. 3.

* Change hours that vehicles are admitted to the zoo, and eliminate free drive through admission for vehicles when the zoo returns to its regular hours on Sept. 3. Pedestrian hours would not change.

* Gate attendants would be on duty from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during extended summer hours from April 1 through Labor Day; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from the day after Labor Day until Oct. 31; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 1 to March 31.

Sexson said the zoo hours of operation are staying the same, but the time for a vehicle to enter is going to be shortened by a half-hour.

"So instead of being able to come in until 4:30 or 6:30, when the normal closing time was for vehicles, now they'll be able to come in until 4 or 6," she said.

* Installation of an automatic gate at the Fifth Street exit, similar to a gate the zoo has at its shop. This gate will open for vehicles, surrey bikes and a new trackless train using a "free-loop metal detecting" mechanism installed in the street. A key pad will be installed outside the gate for staff use. The zoo still needs to determine where to get the money for the gate, so it likely won't be installed until sometime next year.

* All pedestrian traffic, including strollers and bicycles, will be routed through the arches gate once the automatic Fifth Street gate is installed.

* The single gate near the Safari Shoppe eventually will have a swinging gate that includes a manual closer and probably a control button for people with disabilities.

Zoo hours for pedestrians, admission charges for vehicles and benefits for Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo members won't change.

During Tuesday's city commission meeting, City Manager Matt Allen questioned some of the USDA's logic. If the concern is perimeter integrity, Allen asked, why would an unstaffed automatic gate improve security?

"I don't understand how an automated gate changes that at all, because nobody's going to jump out of their Ford Escort to tackle a tiger getting out of the Fifth Street gate," he said. "I think this is a good solution to the regulation, I just think it's a little bit of a stretch of common sense."

Currently, the zoo hasn't budgeted for the changes. Some of the estimated costs include $11,000 for an automatic gate, $3,600 to modify the pedestrian gate near the Safari Shoppe, and $2,020 in 2013 and $3,260 in 2014 for additional gate personnel.

Sexson indicated the zoo will seek grants or other funding to offset the cost of some items, and also might try to make adjustments to other projects already budgeted. There also will be a cost to make changes to signs, but the zoo has $2,000 in grant funds for signage that could be used.

Sexson said the year will give the zoo time to work out details, but some activity will happen in September with changes to signage and the added gate attendant.

"It's just one more thing in regulations we face all the time. You work with them. It's for the safety of the animals and the public," Sexson said. "We're working with the USDA and happy they gave us a little bit of time to work through the problem, so that's what we're doing."

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