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Video of hippo spanking at L.A. Zoo sparks LAPD investigation

Two female hippos cool off in their habitat at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park on Aug. 13, 2018. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Two female hippos cool off in their habitat at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park on Aug. 13, 2018. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – A video of a man climbing a barrier at the Los Angeles Zoo and then slapping a hippopotamus on its rear end has sparked a criminal investigation by the LAPD, officials said Monday.

Zoo officials learned about the incident last week, after a video of the spanking began circulating on social media. Zoo officials responded by reporting the episode to police and by posting a “No Trespassing” sign on the exhibit. It is the first such sign to be placed on an animal exhibit, zoo officials said.

“Any unauthorized interaction with an animal is unsafe for the animal and potentially unsafe for the patron,” said April Spurlock, a zoo spokeswoman. “It is never appropriate for anyone to attempt to have contact or interaction with any animal outside of our staff-led animal experiences.”

The video, which was filmed from the opposite side of the animal enclosure, shows the man vaulting a railing and creeping up slowly on two hippos, Rosie and Mara. The man then reaches out and slaps Rosie, who is almost 4 years old. The loud slap appears to startle Mara – Rosie’s mother – and she quickly lifts her head as the man runs off and raises his arms in a gesture of victory. Rosie does not appear to move after being struck.

It’s unclear what damage or stress a hippo might experience in an incident like this, but because the hippo didn’t have any obvious signs of injury, police aren’t investigating this as an animal cruelty case, an LAPD spokesperson said. Instead, Northeast Community Police Station detectives are investigating it as a case of trespassing.

State law prohibits entry into zoo enclosures, and violation of this law can be a misdemeanor or an infraction, Spurlock said. The L.A. Zoo warns patrons of this on its map, at several zoo access points and along the zoo’s perimeter fence.

L.A. Zoo hippos are accustomed to human interaction in very specific situations. Patrons can pay $20 to go behind the exhibit with educators and animal keepers and potentially pet the animals, with a barrier between them.

Still, it is potentially dangerous to alarm such a large creature.

“Every animal is different and we don’t know exactly what they were thinking,” Spurlock said. “But, it’s an invasion of the trust we work so hard to build with these animals.”

Spurlock said incidents such as this are rare. The only similar incident occurred in 2011, when a visitor crossed two barriers to get close to two elephants. The animals weren’t touched and the woman wasn’t harmed, but she was removed from the zoo and arrested.

“We seriously feel this was an isolated incident,” Spurlock said. “Most people know not to go in with the animals. It’s common sense.”

On Monday morning, Mara and Rosie appeared relaxed as visitors walked by and admired them. They were inseparable and nuzzled their snouts together as they lounged underwater and came up for a breath every so often.

Mirranda Salas, who visits the zoo frequently with her two children, said she noticed the “No Trespassing” sign immediately.

“I wondered if something had happened,” she said. She was dismayed to learn of the slapping episode.

“That’s upsetting that people would think that’s funny,” she said. “If I saw that I would be upset, and to have to explain why someone would do that to the kids would be hard to do. I try to teach them to follow rules.”

Salas and others said they wished people had sense enough not to go into the animal enclosures.

“They obviously don’t know that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal,” said Glendora resident Justin Glanzaman, who was visiting the zoo with his wife and 2-year-old. “They’re sweet until you mess with their family.”

His wife, Taryn Glanzman, said she was concerned as well.

“That’s kind of sad,” she said. “That’s animal abuse. Poor things.”

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