National Zoo zebra bites staffer

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - Officials at Smithsonian's National Zoo are trying to figure out why an employee was inside a zebra enclosure Monday morning when he was bitten several times by the animal.

The unidentified staffer was bitten at least three times at about 8:45 a.m., National Zoo officials say. It's not typical for a keeper to be inside the habitat area, according to the National Zoo.

"We are not sure why he and the animal were in the same area," Zoo spokesman John Gibbons said.

Gumu, the zebra that bit the unidentified worker, is now isolation, He's a 10-year-old, 800-pound animal that zoo officials say is undomesticated. A co-worker was able to rescue the worker from further injury.

The worker was taken to a hospital for treatment for bites to the leg, arm and ear. The zebra, whose name means "stubborn" in Swahili, was not hurt.

However, zoo officials believe that a gazelle died as an indirect result of the incident. The gazelle, named Tony, was likely spooked by the zebra biting the employee and ran into a barrier. Tony likely died due to fractured vertebrae.

Sadly, Dama gazelles are critically endangered, and the zoo was very excited when Tony was born a little over a year ago.

This incident harkens to one that occurred last week at an Oregon animal park, where an employee entered a large cat enclosure in violation of park rules. A The woman was attacked and killed by a cougar.

Frequent zoo visitors say that the keepers are generally well aware of how aggressive zebras can be.

"We came one time and were watching the zebras being fed, and they were discussing how they are even more aggressive than some of the lions," Zoo patron Katie McElroy said.

Later that evening, braying sounds appeared to be coming from Gumu, who was being kept in isolation after the morning’s attacks.

And many can't believe that one of the herbivore animals would do this.

"They're probably the most boring of the animals actually, not much activity from them, so this is really weird to hear," says Raven Proctor of Bowie. "They're great animals. They're very affectionate."

Former animal caretaker Nina Larson spent a year travelling with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. She says the zebras were her favorite animals to care for:

"There kind of nervous when you're new -- but then they get to know you and they love you."

But she adds it was vital to remember that this was not a domesticated animal.

"Something startles them, they take off. They can't take off, they fight," she explains.