Free day at Kansas City Zoo ends in violence

03/18/2014 4:04 PM

03/20/2014 8:29 AM

The Kansas City Zoo will again review its policies after a frightening spasm of violence Tuesday afternoon that included shots fired in the parking lot.

There were no reported gunshot injuries, but zoo officials want to avoid having the animal park gain a reputation for being unsafe on days when it is open for free to residents of Jackson and Clay counties.

Tuesday’s disturbances followed another incident on a free day last April when a police officer breaking up a fight in the parking lot got a bloody nose. In both cases, the free admission drew crowds that were too big for the zoo to handle.

“I’m always concerned about how people feel about the zoo,” zoo director Randy Wisthoff said shortly after Tuesday’s incident. “That’s always at the top of my plate, that people feel safe here.”

Several witnesses on Tuesday described a chaotic scene of brawls and gunshots.

Kristi Sharp Patterson, who was at the zoo Tuesday with her children, said that as they were leaving, she saw people on the ground in handcuffs, and crowds were gathering around.

“Next thing you know shots were fired in the parking lot right in front of the zoo and everyone started screaming and running in every direction,” Patterson told The Star. “By far the scariest experience ever.”

After last year’s incident, the zoo switched its four free days from weekends to weekdays to reduce crowd sizes. It also doubled its security force of four to six off-duty police officers. It now deploys 10 to 12 off-duty officers.

“We’re going to sit down and evaluate it again,” Wisthoff said, adding that he would meet in the next couple of weeks with staff from the city’s parks department as well as commissioners on the zoo’s taxing district board.

Voters in Clay and Jackson counties were promised four free days a year in return for approving a 1/8-cent zoo sales tax in 2011.

“We can’t just take that away,” Wisthoff said.

The next scheduled free days are June 24, July 15 and Aug. 5, all Tuesdays.

Attendance was about 19,000 at the zoo Tuesday. It was more than 29,000 on a Sunday last April when fights also broke out.

“The zoo just cannot handle that many people,” Wisthoff said. “It just gets too crowded. The pathways are too small. That many people can’t see the penguins.”

Attendance was about 6,000 by midday Tuesday, but that number ballooned as the temperature warmed, to the point the zoo was trying to admit as many as 4,000 people an hour.

On top of that, it is spring break for many, and lots of young people were without adults. Wisthoff said security had to escort some of them out of the zoo when they became rowdy.

According to witnesses, trouble grew as the 4 p.m. closing time approached.

Tammy West, who had two small children with her, said that as she was leaving between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m., several hundred people appeared to be standing around just inside the zoo entrance. West said she saw people brawling with police officers who were struggling to break up fights.

Outside, West said, she heard yelling and screaming behind her and saw someone grab a police officer and throw him to the ground. She took her children and ran to her car.

“I got out of there,” she said.

West said people outside the gate were angry that they were not being allowed to enter. The park staff began to cut off admissions to the park about 3:30 p.m. But West said the employees were having a hard time keeping people out.

Gwen Jones was another zoo patron who was leaving about the same time. After she got to her vehicle in the parking lot and buckled in her children, Jones said, a fistfight broke out in front of her vehicle. She drove a short distance and then heard two shots.

“They sounded awful close,” she said. “I’m glad I got out of there when I did.”

A police spokeswoman confirmed that shots were fired in a parking lot outside the zoo. She said several people were arrested related to fights.

Police, with the help of a helicopter, searched unsuccessfully for a man thought to have fired the shots.

Wisthoff said many people enjoyed a good day at the zoo.

“We want for people to be able to see the zoo free,” he said. “We just have to figure out how to accomplish that and maintain a safe environment.”

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