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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sedgwick County Zoo leopard attacks boy through cage

BY STAN FINGER
The Wichita Eagle

A child on a school outing at the Sedgwick County Zoo was attacked by a leopard Friday afternoon after he climbed over a railing separating the leopard exhibit from the public.

The boy suffered lacerations to his head and neck. He was taken to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where he was listed in fair condition. His injuries are not considered life-threatening, officials said.

Assistant zoo director Jim Marlett said the boy, a first-grader, was on an outing with Linwood Elementary School from Wichita. Linwood was one of numerous school groups touring the zoo Friday.

A four-year-old Amur leopard in the Asia section of the zoo attacked the boy after the child climbed over a four- to five-foot railing, crossed an eight-foot gap and stood next to the metal mesh fence of the animal's enclosure, Marlett said.

He said it was the first time in the zoo's history an animal has attacked a visitor.

Naomi Robinson, who was at the zoo with her two children, said she witnessed the attack, which was reported at about 1:20 p.m.

"It happened so quick," she said.

The boy climbed over the railing and walked toward the leopard's cage, she said.

"He wanted to get a closer look," Robinson said.

The leopard came to the edge of the cage, reached a paw through the fencing and grabbed the boy by the side of the head, she said. The fence has 4-inch by 8-inch gaps between the bars.

It looked like the leopard was trying to pull him into the enclosure, Robinson said,

The boy immediately began screaming, and a man and woman jumped over the railing and ran to help him, she said.

The man kicked the leopard in the head, prompting him to release the boy, Robinson said. The woman was trying to spook the animal.

They then laid the boy on the ground between the guard railing and the leopard cage. A zoo tram came by moments after the leopard released the boy, and people on the tram joined in the efforts to aid the boy.

Cheyenne Whetstone, a student at West High, said she was walking out of the tiger exhibit when she heard a lot of noise and went over to see what was going on.

"Everyone was screaming," Whetstone said.

A crowd was surrounding a child on the ground, she said. A man took off his shirt and wrapped it on the boy's right ear, she said.

People were using whatever they could — shirts and towels, for example — to stem the bleeding, witnesses said.

"It was terrible," Robinson said as she stood near the cage less than two hours after the attack. "I'm really shaken right now. I'm just glad my children didn't see it. They were looking the other way."

After the incident, people began yelling to try to find the boy's parent, Robinson said, then to find a Linwood representative when they learned he was there with a school group.

"I never heard so much screaming before in my life," Robinson said.

Marlett said a parent was serving as a chaperone for that group of first-graders.

The leopard, named Nia, was sequestered following the incident, zoo officials said. There are no plans to euthanize the animal, which weighs about 77 pounds.

"It was a leopard being a leopard," Marlett said.

The zoo remained open after the incident, though the area surrounding the leopard's cage was closed so paramedics could tend to and then evacuate the injured boy and authorities could investigate the incident.

A Wichita School District spokeswoman told the Associated Press that counselors were sent to the zoo to talk with children who saw the attack.

"Our main focus was to make sure our student was taken care of, and also the students who were at the zoo when the incident occurred," spokeswoman Susan Arensman said. "Not only that school, but many other schools were there.

"We set up a crisis team, talked to kids who witnessed this, and sent home letters to the parents of kids who were at the zoo to let them know what happened."

The letter sent home with Linwood students stated in part: "Many of our students witnessed the incident and were upset by it.

"We had staff and members talk with our students and reassure them that this was an accident and the student who was hurt has been taken care of and will be okay."

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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