MELBOURNE, Fla. — Documents from 2009 show that state wildlife officials approved the rhinoceros encounter at the Brevard Zoo, where a toddler was seriously hurt in January.

The records, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state that the exhibit's construction meets requirements.

"Materials utilized in construction of the visitor interaction area were found to meet or exceed minimum strength requirements," a document says.

On New Year's Day, a 2-year-old girl slipped through steel poles and fell into the rhino encounter. Two of the large animals got "spooked," according to an incident report, and "made contact" with the girl. The girl was airlifted to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, where she was diagnosed with a lacerated liver, a bruised lung, and various contusions.

Her mother also was hospitalized at Orlando Regional Medical Center after reaching in to pull out the girl and injuring her arm.

Guests have not been allowed to interact with the zoo's rhinos since then.

Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten tells Spectrum News 13 that no one could have predicted what happened.

"Accidents happen. When you're dealing with hundreds of people and large animals — and our job is to anticipate that — we thought we did a good job for the past 10 years being accident-free. We try to learn and make sure that doesn't happen again," Winsten said.

"We are putting in a net to physically protect people, and we are dropping the number of people that can be there at one time," he said.

The zoo will now have a dozen new policies and procedures, which were approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on March 7. Some of the biggest changes include:

  • Barring anyone younger than 7 into the rhino encounter
  • Limiting the number of guests to eight
  • Requiring two keepers to be present at all times
  • Adding a barrier prior to each rhino encounter, and the bottom of the net will be above the concrete set to 36 inches

Dana Strapazzon recently visited the Brevard Zoo with her son and granddaughter from Canada. She said animal encounters are great tools to teach empathy to children, who learn through physical contact.

But she says kids can quickly get into trouble, so she and her family ensure that two people are always watching over 6-year-old Serayah Honey.

While at the kangaroo encounter at the zoo, Strapazzon said they talked to Serayah and made sure she understood to follow all rules and remain calm around the wild animals.

She said she doesn't blame the zoo for what happened in the rhino exhibit and believe accidents do happen. 

"I think it's up to the parents to make sure they (children) are supervised," Strapazzon said.

Zoo officials said that after installing the net, they will monitor how the rhinos interact with the net and react to new changes before reopening the encounter, which could take another month or two.

Protective netting at the Brevard Zoo's rhino encounter. (Krystel Knowles/Spectrum News 13)
Protective netting at the Brevard Zoo's rhino encounter. (Krystel Knowles/Spectrum News 13)