By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
When a teenage, female Egyptian cobra escaped its enclosure at the Bronx Zoo on March 25, its story slithered into the limelight. After all, the well-publicized escape occurred in New York, a place that gets a lot of media attention.
People did what they do, and press conferences ensued. The snake did what snakes do and sought out a warm, dark place to relax on the zoo grounds, where it was found unharmed on March 31.
The brief tale elicited a lot of online comment and media attention. It even made headlines nationwide. From a risk management perspective, though, in terms of frequency, the event was indeed rare.
After all, human injuries or fatalities from snakes that escape from zoos are unheard of, according to Shirl Hedges, an underwriting manager for the Philadelphia Insurance Cos., one of a handful of domestic carriers that writes insurance policies for zoos in the United States.
Yet, remember the case in August 2010 of a tiger rattlesnake that escaped Zoo Atlanta. The two-foot-long snake ended up on the porch of a neighborhood homeowner. The snake was found close to a toddler and was subsequently clubbed to death by the toddler's father, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The toddler was unharmed. He was lucky because the venom from a tiger rattlesnake, a native of Arizona, is very potent.
And, yes, had the child in Georgia been bitten, the claim against Zoo Atlanta would probably have been significant, given the propensity on the part of juries to award very large damages in cases where children have been harmed.
In 2009, in the case of the escaped tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, in which two young men were injured and one killed, the zoo settled for an undisclosed sum.
KEYS TO ZOO RISK MANAGEMENT
Hedges said that her company, a subsidiary of Tokio Marine, relies on the accreditation process of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in determining whether a zoo has taken proper precautions to prevent animal escape.
"I mean, obviously you don't want mesh fences holding back tigers," Hedges said. "You don't want kids being able to poke their fingers in an alligator pit."
A spokesman for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns the Bronx Zoo, declined to answer questions about the society's risk management program and referred a reporter to the society's prepared statements on its website.
But in the actual world of zoo claims, according to Hedges, it's what people do, not what snakes do, that ends up generating claims.
These days, zoos have to compete with other forms of entertainment in the battle to attract a family's Sunday afternoon leisure dollar. That means building such things as monorails and carousels.
The irony is that zoos' general liability policies are more exposed to slips and falls than they are to escaping animals, Hedges said.
Insurers are also seeing property claims, particularly in the Northeast, as zoo structures give way because of the weight of snow and ice dumped onto zoo shelters from the heavier snowfalls that the Northeast has seen in recent years, according to Hedges.
April 5, 2011
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