Brevard Zoo considers netting at rhino exhibit after girl fell through bars and into rhino pit

MELBOURNE, Fla. — The Brevard Zoo said it is looking into options for a protective barrier after a new report said the toddler who fell into a rhino exhibit at the Brevard Zoo on New Year's Day suffered a lacerated liver, an injured kidney and injuries to her back, chest, abdomen, head and leg.

On Thursday, Keith Winsten, the zoo's executive director, responded to the the new details in the 59-page report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"This was the first time we got to see the details of the little girl's injuries," Winsten said. "We feel absolutely terrible that this happened to her and her family while they were visiting the zoo."


The zoo said in a statement released Thursday that it is working with FWC to identify the best protective barrier for its rhino exhibit.

One option being considered is what the zoo called "a panel of netting that would be hung up prior to any guests entering the encounter area."

"We've looked at three (safety options) -- we've looked at horizontal bars, we've looked at ropes and we've looked at nets," Winsten said. "If none of those are sufficient, we'll see what else we can come up with."

He said the zoo will seek safety recommendations from FWC and will not reopen the Rhino Encounter experience until new safety measures are in place.

Winsten said he has not communicated with the girl or her parents, but he said the zoo's insurance company would work with the family to pay for her medical expenses.

WATCH LIVE: Brevard Zoo to answer questions about rhino exhibit

WATCH LIVE: The executive director of the Brevard Zoo answers questions after the FWC released a detailed report about a toddler who fell into the rhino exhibit. READ MORE: at.wftv.com/2WvQ0ks

Posted by WFTV Channel 9 on Thursday, January 31, 2019

On Jan. 1, the 21-month-old girl stumbled through steel poles separating the public space, which is at ground level, from the Rhino Encounter exhibit.

The FWC report also said investigators believe the two poles between which the toddler fell were about 8 inches apart.

According to the report, the family was at the Rhino Encounter area around noon that day when three rhinos were in the exhibit.

A few minutes later, the girl was “using a brush to touch one of the rhinos and somehow stumbled,” FWC said. Her father told FWC the girl fell face first.

This photo from FWC shows the girl's injuries to her abdomen. She also suffered kidney, liver, back, chest, head and leg injuries. (Source: FWC)

“When the child fell, she apparently startled two of the rhinos and they began to strike their snouts repeatedly against the child. This caused the child to be pushed into the steel posts multiple times,” FWC said.

The girl’s father was struck on the right arm by one of the animals, the report said. The girl’s mother had her left arm pinned against one of the bars as she tried to grab her daughter, FWC said.

The entire incident lasted five to 10 seconds, the FWC report said. The rhino exhibit has remained open, but the Rhino Encounter experience where this happened has been closed ever since.

The report includes pictures of the girl in the hospital, wearing a cervical collar and attached to several machines. The toddler was in the hospital for six days. The zoo originally told Channel 9 the girl had suffered a small abrasion to her face.

Previous coverage: Brevard Zoo rhinos will not be 'punished' after 2-year-old girl stumbles into exhibit

A previous close call?

The zoo has said this is the only such incident since the exhibit opened in 2009, but investigators said Peggy Kunkle contacted them during the investigation, saying one of her grandchildren intentionally squeezed through the vertical bars and entered the rhino exhibit in 2010.

"I turned around, and I about had a heart attack," she told Channel 9 on Wednesday. "I snatched her so fast and got her out of there."

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Kunkle said she notified zoo employees about the incident.

"I told the two guys that were doing the Rhino Encounter and two girls upstairs who were selling tickets," she said. "I said, 'You need to put some kind of wire or something in there so those little kids can't get through those poles."

Kunkle said she regrets not having relayed her concerns to zoo management.

"I talked to four different people there, and they should have done something about it then," she said.

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In that case, there was no contact with a rhino. The zoo said it could not find records or documents related to such an incident.

An attorney for the girl's family told Channel 9 that the toddler was discharged from the hospital but continues to receive treatment.

The attorney also said the girl's parents are "devoting 100 percent of their efforts to her healing and well-being and would appreciate very much that their privacy be respected."