Lethal Weapons: A Veterinarian’s Perspective
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2001
Ben Okimoto, DVM
Honolulu Zoo, Honolulu, HI, USA

Portions of this paper first appeared in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s 1996 Annual Conference Proceedings.


It is common for zoos to exhibit animal species that are potentially dangerous. These animals could inflict serious injury or cause death should they come into direct contact with people. Although modern zoo exhibits are designed to safely contain the animals and reduce the risk of injury to zoo staff and visitors, history has shown that no exhibit is perfectly designed. An especially difficult task is preventing the public from getting too close or even entering a dangerous animal exhibit.

Highly publicized tragedies with circus elephants have also shown that zoo professionals can be asked for assistance in responding to emergency situations. These tragic events are uncommon and unlikely to occur in an American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) accredited institution. However, even in a well-managed facility it is prudent for an organization with dangerous animals to have in place an emergency protocol listing standard operating procedures to respond to animal escapes. At the least, such documentation might lessen an institution’s liability should an event occur. A recent survey indicated that 16 of the responding AZA accredited institutions had experienced dangerous animal escapes and 13 “had to discharge firearms kept on site during a dangerous animal situation.”1

This commentary discusses the very rare occurrence of when a dangerous animal must be shot. This is an act of last resort when a human life is in imminent danger and the animal must be killed. In this situation, attempts at tranquilization and recapture may prolong the exposure of the human victim and increase the chance of serious injury or death. If humans are not at risk but the dangerous animal must still be killed, then attempts at sedation can be made. After chemical immobilization of the animal, a qualified veterinarian can administer euthanasia solutions such as pentobarbital sodium or potassium chloride.

Many zoos have well-written “Dangerous Animal Escape Guidelines.” The Honolulu Zoo has over the last several years, updated and modified its own guidelines following the excellent protocols of other zoos such as the San Diego Zoo and the Houston Zoo. In 1994, a tragic event with a circus elephant in Honolulu prompted additional changes in our zoo’s protocol. We offer this information for your review and consideration, and not as a recommendation of how all zoos should operate.

In the past, many zoos with dangerous animals have assigned staff members to a shooting team with killing weapons. These staff members often have been trained with the assistance of the local police department (usually the special weapons and tactics or SWAT team). Although these police officers are highly trained and qualified, they may lack the experience, knowledge, and weapons to deal with large, dangerous, exotic animals. Ironically, one of the best sources of information in this area comes from a group that zoo professionals usually don’t associate with, namely, big game hunters.

While it may be uncomfortable for some zoo professionals to consult with and study the methods used by hunters, it must be remembered that the knowledge gained is vital to the understanding of dealing with an escaped dangerous animal. In these litigious times, it would seem prudent to not ignore important information that is common knowledge to one group of people. Additionally, if such a definitive judgment has to be made to kill an animal to save a human life, it is incumbent upon the individual making that decision to carry out that action in the most expedient manner to lessen the suffering of the animal. It would seem logical that the zoo veterinarian be intimately involved with this process. The zoo veterinarian has the education, training, and the authority to euthanatize animals. The zoo veterinarian has the experience of judging how and when to dart an escaped zoo animal. All of this accumulated knowledge should be incorporated into the zoo’s firearms protocol.

Even before obtaining a weapon, a review of current local statutes should be done to ascertain the extent of liability for staff members on the shooting team. This is especially important if a dangerous animal escapes from the zoo grounds and must be pursued beyond the zoo’s perimeter fence. Without some acknowledgment or written authorization from local law enforcement agencies, zoo staff could be subject to criminal penalties, even while taking justifiable steps to protect the public. The 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing firearms or ammunition. The penalty for this felony offense is a fine of $250,000 and/or 10 years in prison. The amendment specifically does not exempt government agencies, including law enforcement and the military. In order to comply with the law, members of the shooting team may need to register yearly with the local police department, who will conduct a criminal background search through the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The selection of the shooters from zoo staff is possibly the most important decision of this procedure. The good judgment of the shooter is, I believe, the most critical factor to be considered. Your local police department could provide you with a psychologist to administer psychologic screening (as is done with police recruits) if you choose to have formal documentation of the selection process. Obviously, proficiency with firearms in terms of shooting accuracy is necessary, but this can be addressed as a training issue. We have utilized the services of National Rifle Association (NRA)-certified instructors and a former army drill instructor with the 82nd Airborne Division.

To cover firearms safety training, we have sought instruction from the city shooting range master and from the state hunter safety program. We have conducted walk-through training scenarios of zoo grounds with the safety instructors, safari hunters, and SWAT team officers.

The choice of weapons should be determined by the kind of dangerous animal they would be used against. Here again, the premise is that human life is in imminent danger. In this instance, we feel the objective would be to kill the animal as quickly and as safely as possible. We believe the goal would be to shoot one bullet into the animal’s midbrain. Another zoo, judging this goal to be very difficult to achieve initially, has a protocol that instructs the shooter to first disable the animal (e.g., bull elephant) in the leg, before targeting the brain.

In order to achieve our objective of stopping the animal with one shot, we have accepted the recommendations of big game hunters. These recommendations are detailed to the point of suggesting the kind of rifle, the type of cartridge, and the weight of the bullet. A good reference for this type of information is Lyman’s Guide to Big Game Cartridges and Rifles by Edward Matunas.21 A comprehensive discussion of weapon selection and response in a zoologic institution can be found in the paper by Baker in the American Association of Zoo Keepers publication Resources For Crisis Management in Zoos and Other Animal Care Facilities.2 Basic knowledge about projectile ballistics can be gained by studying articles by Michael Pavletic.24 There are many important references that span a variety of information on weapons and their use.1-31

For the largest African mammals (elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, buffalo), big-bore cartridges are recommended. These include 500 grain solid bullets of the 458 Winchester magnum or the 416 Rigby calibers. Good bolt-action rifles, such as the pre-1964 vintage Winchester models are recommended. Since the shooting distances are generally short, riflescopes are not generally recommended, although the newer “Red Dot” type scopes could be considered. This type of scope is of low magnification, has adjustable size and brightness of the dot, and is unaffected by parallax.

For bears and large cats, the 375 H&H magnum cartridge was often recommended. This was especially so if the Nosler “partition” or Swift “A frame” bullets were used. Again, a good bolt-action rifle should be considered.

A 12-gauge shotgun with 00 buckshot or slugs would be advantageous to have as a backup gun to cover the shooter or to use in close, confined, or heavily planted areas. Zoos commonly have 12-gauge shotguns as a backup or sometimes as their primary weapon. As was learned with the escaped circus elephant in Honolulu, a 12-gauge shotgun even with magnum slugs is incapable of quickly stopping an adult elephant. However, modern shotgun slugs, such as the French Sauvestre “Sledgehammer” slug, claim to be effective against Cape buffalo.

Another difficulty to be considered is the need to securely store the weapons yet have ready access to them. A good commercial gun safe, such as those from HOMACK Company, is well-constructed, easily secured to walls, and quick to open. If the safe is located in a building that is already monitored with an alarm system, door contacts could easily be wired into the system.

Advanced polymer recoil pads such as the “Kick Killer” pad from Action Products provide shoulder protection from the extreme recoil when firing high-powered rifles.

Training and qualification requirements of the shooters are ambiguous and inconsistent among zoos. Each zoo will have to determine its own level of proficiency. Some zoos train their shooters with their local police SWAT teams. The Honolulu Zoo determined that the shooting team would not be able to match the expertise of the SWAT team in terms of accuracy. Also, the cost of qualifying with the SWAT team’s training schedule would have been very expensive. Each cartridge of the 458 Winchester magnum costs about $2.75 plus shipping. Our protocol requires shooters to qualify and then re-qualify every six months. We require a shooter to hit a high percentage of shots into a certain sized target at a set distance within a prescribed time period

Unless your police department provides a complete training program, documentation of weapons safety training may be difficult to substantiate. Hunter safety classes may provide good general safety guidelines; however, most of the instruction concerns hunting. The NRA can provide a basic rifle/shotgun safety course if you have access to an NRA-certified instructor.

A particularly difficult area to obtain information deals with targeting or aiming points. A general knowledge of anatomy and advice from local hunters may not be adequate for formal training. We sought to find published recommendations of aiming points to use as documentation in training. Here again, big game hunters provided the best and perhaps, the only source of information. James Mellon’s book, African Hunter, was one source we found with this kind of photographic aiming point recommendations.22 I caution readers of this text that the pictures and content of this book are very graphic and depict the killing of animals that a contemporary zoo professional would not condone. Similar information can be found in Mahohboh by Ron Thomson and Safari by Elmer Keith.18,31

Hopefully, there will not come a time when we will have to use these weapons. However, acknowledgment of the possibility that a dangerous animal may have to be killed to save a human life mandates that those in authority be prepared to act responsibly. The proper response requires good judgment on the part of trained zoo staff, adequate equipment in the form of appropriate weapons and bullets, and documentation of formal training.

Literature Cited

1.  Baker WK Jr, Hainley P, Seubert K. The North American crisis management survey. Animal Keepers’ Forum. 1996;23(7):10–420.

2.  Baker WK Jr. The Weapons Response to a Zoological Crisis Situation. Resources for Crisis Management in Zoos and Other Animal Care Facilities. A Publication of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. 1999:133–159.

3.  Bell WDM. The Wanderings of An Elephant Hunter. Reprint. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press. 1923.

4.  Boddington, C. Safari Rifles. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1992.

5.  Boddington, C. Shots at Big Game. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1993.

6.  Boddington C. American Hunting Rifles. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1995.

7.  Boddington C. Make It Accurate. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1999.

8.  Capstick PH. Death in the Long Grass. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1977.

9.  Capstick PH. Death in the Silent Places. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1981.

10.  Capstick PH. Death in the Dark Continent. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1983.

11.  Capstick PH. Death in a Lonely Land. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1990.

12.  Capstick PH. Safari—The Last Adventure. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1984.

13.  Corbett J. Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1991.

14.  Corbett J. Leopard of Rudrapryag. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1991.

15.  Corbett J. Temple Tiger and Tree Tops. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1991.

16.  Corbet J. My India. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1991.

17.  Corbett J. Jungle Lore. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1991.

18.  Keith E. Safari. Safari Publications; 1968.

19.  Keith E. Gun Notes-Volume I. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1961-70.

20.  Keith E. Gun Notes-Volume II. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1971-80.

21.  Matunas, E. Lyman’s Guide to: Big Game Cartridges and Rifles. Middlefield, CO: Lyman Products Corporation; 1993.

22.  Mellon J. African Hunter. New York, NY, London, UK: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1975.

23.  O’Connor J. The Big Game rifle. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1994.

24.  Pavletic MM. Gunshot wounds in veterinary medicine: projectile ballistics—part I. Continuing Education. 1986;8(1):47–60. Part II. 1986;8(2):125–132.

25.  Ruark RC Jr. Use Enough Gun. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1966.

26.  Ruark RC Jr. Horn of the Hunter. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1997.

27.  Selous FC. Africa’s Greatest Hunter. In: Casada JA. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1998.

28.  Taylor, J. Big Game and Big Game Rifles. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1993.

29.  Taylor J. African Rifles and Cartridges. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1999.

30.  Taylor J. Pondoro—Last of the Ivory Hunters. Long Beach, CA: Safari Press; 1999.

31.  Thomson R. Mahohboh. Africa Safari Press; 1997.


Speaker Information
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Ben Okimoto, DVM
Honolulu Zoo
Honolulu, HI, USA

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