The Santa Barbara Zoo’s youngest white-handed gibbon, Jari, died suddenly on Thursday morning, with her head becoming tangled in an enrichment net that surrounded her exhibit.
She was only 5 years old, coming to Santa Barbara in Jan. 2017, her third zoo since being born in Nov. 2013 at the Jackson Zoo in Mississippi.
“We are devastated. Jari is an animal that we genuinely all loved,” said Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care & health, told the News-Press. “It’s like losing your kid, your child. It’s a grieving process you have to go through, and it never gets easier.”
At approximately 10:45 a.m., Jari’s keepers noticed that she was not responding to calls for her to come into her normal holding area for a morning feeding. One of the keepers noticed Jari unresponsive behind a tree and rushed into the exhibit, securing her and rushing her to the animal hospital, where attempts to revive her were unsuccessful.
According to Dr. Barnes, no guests approached zoo officials about witnessing Jari’s entanglement, although there were people at the exhibit when the keepers rushed in.
“People are usually really good about reporting if an animal is in distress,” Dr. Barnes said. “We respond right away when they do. This time around, the trees hid Jari and it was only the keeper that observed it.”
The enrichment net had been in place for more than five months, with the focus on providing both Jari and her adopted mother, Jasmine, an opportunity for more fulfilling experiences for a primate.
“It’s like a cargo net, it’s a climbing structure for primates, who are curious, engaging animals,” Dr. Barnes said. “It gives them a lot of opportunities to investigate and it improves the welfare for a primate. It keeps them active and engaged.”
Dr. Barnes indicated that Jari’s keepers had never observed the gibbon struggling with the netting, with both she and Jasmine both utilizing multiple rope structures throughout the exhibit.
The cargo netting was immediately removed after Jari’s passing, both in the external exhibit, as well as in the holding area.
Zoo President and CEO, Rich Block, was shook by the loss, but also indicated that the zoo immediately assessed if there was anything that could have been done to avoid the tragedy — particularly with a young animal that has a life expectancy of up to 50 years, according to gibboncenter.org.
“Even when something happens at another institution, we look at that and see if there is something similar that we are doing here,” Mr. Block told the News-Press. “That’s either on the animal side or on the public side. We try to monitor what’s going on, prevent what we can and make things better.”
Mr. Block pointed to a tragic accident at a zoo in Pittsburgh that saw a child die after falling into a wild dog exhibit. The zoo used that as an opportunity to assess a new otter exhibit it was building, realizing that the initial plans for railings could lead to a similar outcome for a member of the public, ultimately deciding to use glass walls to prevent such a fall here.
“People can do things without thinking it through, but by us learning, that will never be an issue,” Mr. Block said.
Dr. Barnes says that a lot of focus will be put on Jari’s adopted mother, Jasmine, a 41-year-old gibbon with diabetes that has experienced her fair share of loss, with her partner passing away in 2016, as well as her babies leaving the zoo.
On Wednesday, keepers brought back Jari’s body to allow Jasmine to help her find closure, although she simply looked at it from above and did not move to engage.
“Initially, Jasmine was distressed, but settled down once everyone was out of the area,” said Dr. Barnes, who said that the keepers will monitor appetite and her ability to take her diabetes medicine. “She seems reasonably relaxed, but it’ll be very important to spend time with her, she has been through a lot in her life. She is a more senior primate that is wise, she is coping OK with this.”
That observation will be made in person, as the gibbon exhibit does not have video cameras, as the area is too expansive to monitor. Other areas of the zoo do have video monitoring — mainly used to observe sleep patterns and interactions after the fact.
“It’s just like if you leave your dog at home, you might have video, but you don’t monitor it all the time,” Dr. Barnes said.
“Life has inherent risk in everything we do, and the enrichment net allows us to let the gibbons live a worthwhile life.”
Dr. Barnes and the zoo staff have already reached out to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, letting them know that they are looking for a surrogate for Jasmine.
“Gibbons are social animals, it’ll be important to find a suitable pair for her,” Dr. Barnes said. “But for now we are mourning Jari.”
The zoo has dealt with an influx of deaths — nearly all attributed to old age — over the past 10 months:
A pair of snow leopards passed away, with Zoe, 15, dying suddenly on Feb. 14, while Everett, 22, was euthanized on March 21. At the time of Everett’s death, he was the oldest snow leopard in human care.
A 35-year-old white-handed gibbon, Nikko, died en route to a specialist on Dec. 18, 2018 after it was discovered he had cancer after being transferred from the Oakland Zoo.
A 47-year-old Asian elephant, Sujatha, was euthanized on Oct. 16, 2018.
“It’s been a tough year,” Mr. Block said. “Especially for those people that are caring for the animals.
“We can make ourselves feel better that they had a long life, were well cared for and well loved, but it’s still difficult. Today, it was a young animal, the furthest thing from our minds. Yes, at some point, you kind of expect to be dealing with this. But not with such a young and vibrant primate, such a thrill to be around her. She was so curious about the people watching her.
“This is such a horrible way to learn a lesson and grow.”