Kathy Antoniotti

The radio transmission was frantic: A large cat was loose at the Akron Zoo, a staff educator told David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services.

Barnhardt, who was in charge as one of five zoo personnel qualified to hold an “Executive On Duty” designation, could hear visiting school children screaming in the background.

“I didn’t even make it to the command center,” Barnhardt said. “I dialed 911 and reported it.

“The dispatcher told me officers were at the door, and I radioed the front gate, but the guard said they hadn’t arrived,” he said.

It took 20 minutes before Barnhardt and the office staff realized the loose “lion” was actually another staff member with a sign identifying the person as the at-large animal.

“The [zoo’s] hospital staff followed protocol and contained the ‘lion.’ They didn’t notify us until they approached it after they had ‘darted it,’ Barnhardt said.

Barnhardt was recounting the incident, which occurred last year, to members of the Summit County Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team (DWART), which was holding its second meeting since being convened by the Summit County Emergency Management Agency this year.

The drills, which are held at least once a year, are conducted to give zoo staff and the Akron police and dispatchers experience in following a set protocol if a similar event occurs at the Akron Zoo, said zoo veterinarian Kim Cook.

Normally, only one or two zoo officials know in advance of a drill, but they did tell the visiting children, said Cook, who is a member of the team along with zoo General Manager Patricia Waickman.

“We have some pretty good actors and actresses on staff,” Cook said.

In March, Gov. John Kasich ordered each of Ohio’s 88 counties to form a team in response to the Oct. 18, 2012, incident in which Zanesville resident Terry Thompson released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and tigers — before killing himself. Fear for public safety led authorities to kill 48 of the animals.

The team, assembled by Summit EMA Director Valerie De Rose, met for the first time in October to develop a countywide protocol in the event a similar incident occurs locally. On Tuesday, the team met at the Akron Zoo to see what safety precautions are put in place for the largest assemblage of wild animals in Summit County.

The wild animal response team is made up of members representing local law enforcement, elected officials, zoo officials, public health, animal control, local media and others. They are developing a database of each animal designated as wild in Summit and surrounding counties and the address of the owner and where the animal is kept.

The goal is to provide safety forces with the information so they would know what they are dealing with in the event of an incident at that address. The list will be updated every six months to add new acquisitions and births.

To date, more than 170 wild animals are known to reside in the area, including those at the Akron Zoo and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

“Unfortunately, the information we have are the [animals] that we don’t have to worry about. These people are working with us,” De Rose said.

Civilian members of the team will not be responding to incidents involving wild animals or restricted snakes, but will provide resource support before, during and after a dangerous wild animal emergency. Each county is expected to have a plan in place by the end of January, De Rose said.

Barnhardt noted that the zoo has never had an incident involving a real wild animal escaping its enclosure. With three security perimeters at each enclosure, triple-paned glass and reinforced steel cages, it would be close to impossible for an animal to get loose under normal circumstances.

Drills at the zoo continue in case of a natural disaster, such as a tornado or an earthquake, that could send the best plan awry.

It’s not the same in the private, outside world of wild animal ownership, said Copley police Chief Michael Mier, a member of the team.

“Some of these zoos are very secure; others are just chicken wire,” Mier said.

Akron police Lt. Chip Westfall said people must realize that when an emergency arises that involves an escaped wild animal, darting with a tranquilizer is rarely an option.

“If it has escaped, we aren’t talking about darting. We are talking about recovery,” he said.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.