Toddler’s injuries were severe, report says

A toddler who fell into a rhinoceros’ enclosure at a Florida zoo on New Year’s Day lacerated her liver and bruised a lung – more severe injuries than initially reported, according to a report issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the state agency that oversees safety protocols for captive animals.

The father of the girl told Florida Today the child, whose name is Raegan, was recovering. 

“She’s doing better,” said Joshua Visser of Eustis. “We’re still in the healing process,” he said.

The incident at the Brevard Zoo, described as a “wildlife attack” by FWC investigators, happened as the parents and the 21-month-old child, who are friends of a zoo employee, were participating in an impromptu, hands-on 30-minute tour of the facility.

State investigators said the 28-pound girl’s injuries also included numerous bruises. 

“Both parents appeared to be in a state of shock and visibly upset to a great degree,” Investigator Steven McDaniel noted in his report.

It was a disturbing end to what was supposed to be a quick New Year’s Day visit to the Brevard Zoo, which receives about 464,000 visitors per year. The zoo is reviewing its policies about such animal encounters, officials said. The zoo will not reopen the encounter tour until new measures are in place, they said. 

“Our zoo is a place of wonder and joy and we feel terrible that this accident happened at our facility,” said Ketith Winsten, executive director, in a statement. “We are committed to always improving our safety measures which is why we are going to make changes to the area so that this can never happen again.”

Winsten also said the release of the FWC report this week was the first time they had learned of the extent of the toddler’s injuries. 

“We feel absolutely terrible this happened to her,” he said. “There wasn’t any obvious injury (in the first report). It turns out there were significant injuries.”  

Raegan, who was photographed by state investigators lying in a bed and connected to various medical tubes, was released from Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando on Jan. 6. There is no surveillance video of the incident, zoo officials said.

Investigators said that about 10 minutes into the tour, the toddler was reaching into the enclosure with a brush to touch a rhino and apparently fell backward through the steel pole enclosure. She tumbled into the rhinoceros’ dirt-and-hay-covered habitat. 

Her father tried to pick her up and pull her back through the bars.

Investigators said the two female rhinos turned around in the 200-square-foot enclosure, approached Raegan and used their snouts to repeatedly pin or push her. The girl, alert and whimpering, was in the enclosure for about 10 seconds, according to the report.

“Both rhinos backed up and were spooked and began pushing on the child,” the report stated.

The zoo employee quickly radioed for help. Investigators said there were no visible injuries on the child’s body, except a possible abrasion on her face and dirt on her clothes. Raegan’s mother hurt her left arm during her efforts to lift the child from the enclosure, the report said.

No information was available Thursday about any review of the employee’s action by the zoo. 

The zoo offers animal encounters, allowing guests to sometimes brush or rub some animals. Brevard Zoo workers typically feed the rhinos – who are herbivores – hay and grass. Female white rhinos can weigh up to 4,000 and 4,400 pounds.

The zoo is accredited by the Maryland-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums and was accredited again last year. The facility undergoes four training sessions each year. 

The case will now be turned over to FWC’s captive wildlife investigations unit to coordinate any changes the Brevard Zoo will make to prevent any similar incidents from happening again.

Winsten said zoo staff has reviewed a few options. The one they like the best is a 36-inch net across the bars of the exhibit, which would prevent anyone from slipping through.

“It would be the safest and most secure,” he said. 

The zoo wants to get FWC’s approval to put in the net, but there’s no timetable for when that will happen or when the encounters will resume. 

“We have not considered ending the encounters,” Winsten said. “The rhinos enjoy it.”

Follow J.D. Gallop on Twitter: @JDGallop

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