DeAnn Smith and Jamie Oberg, KCTV (Kansas City), March 19, 2014
As police continue on Wednesday to investigate Tuesday’s violence at the Kansas City Zoo, city leaders are looking at changes to the zoo’s free admission days for residents of Jackson and Clay counties.
Kansas City Zoo goers described Tuesday afternoon running for their lives after hundreds of teens were involved in fights inside the zoo and shots were fired in a zoo parking lot.
“It was very scary,” Liberty resident Jaimi Heckadon said. “All hell broke loose.”
As she and her group bolted for the exit, Heckadon said she heard people screaming about officers using pepper spray.
“The problem was these teenagers. None of them were escorted by an adult,” she said.
Extra security was already on hand, but dozens of Kansas City police officers responded to the zoo after the issues erupted about 3:30 p.m. The zoo closed at 4 p.m. as scheduled.
No serious injuries were reported because of the issues. Authorities said Tuesday that 6 arrests were made and a gun was found on top of a fire pit in Swope Park, which surrounds the zoo.
No one has been arrested for firing the shots. One person was arrested for outstanding warrants, two females were arrested for non-violent assault and three were arrested for their roles in the chaos.
On Wednesday, police said “numerous arrests were made for fighting in public and assault.”
The zoo has put on hold its free zoo-admission days until the issues are resolved.
One zoo goer told KCTV5 that he saw 20 police cars. He said he was at the zoo with his toddler and felt unsafe. He said he saw multiple fights involving individuals and large groups break out inside the zoo and in the parking lots.
Heckadon, who is a season ticket holder, said she had gone to the zoo with her 9-year-old son, a friend and her friend’s 10-year-old son. They were in the Africa section about 3:30 p.m. headed toward the tram when they saw four teen girls get into an argument.
“They were screaming. They were yelling. One threw a punch,” she recalled. “Their boyfriends came around and ended up in it. Then there was about 20 kids.”
She said the closest worker sprinted to the area and yelled into her walkie talkie for help.
“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Heckadon said. “A stampede of teens came storming toward us. We had to shield the boys with our own bodies. It was that tense. Hundreds of teens were flying down there.”
She had parked on the grass near Starlight Theatre. She said as they were heading to their vehicle that they heard shots ring out. They got to the vehicle as quickly as they could, and got ready to leave.
“My 9-year-old said, ‘We were just in a riot.’ And my friend and I were still speechless at that point,” Heckadon said.
She said she immediately thought of the issues at the Country Club Plaza where large groups of unsupervised teens and young adults have been involved in fights and shootings.
Jimmie Todd was leaving the zoo amidst the gunfire and screaming.
“Everybody got scared when they started firing shots,” he said. “A bunch of fights and a lot of arguing and the cops tackling the kids. They tackled them on the ground. They sprayed mace.”
Marc Hoefer was at the zoo with his wife, and 11 and 8-year-old children. An 11-year-old friend joined them.
“It was crowded. It was a different crowd. There was not a lot of courtesy. It was very packed and very tense,” he said. “There was a strong police presence. There were a lot of pockets of youth. You could see there was a lot of tension. I didn’t expect to walk about and see what I saw, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Issues with a previous free admission day on a Sunday in April 2013 had prompted changes, including moving from weekends. The changes had seemed to prevent subsequent issues in 2013.
According to a Kansas City police report, a large number of teens arrived between 2 and 3:30 p.m., and began to cause problems.
“At that time, at least 500 to 600 teams and adults were observed standing outside the main gate to the zoo. Officers were contacted and attempted to start moving people from the front gates,” the police report says. “At that time, it was decided to immediately close the zoo for the day instead of at 4 p.m. A short time later, numerous fights began to break out at the entrance to the zoo and front parking lot.”
The last free zoo day had been Dec. 30. There are four free zoo days per year.
The next free zoo days in 2014 were scheduled for June 24, July 15 and Aug. 5.
[Zoo Director Randy] Wisthoff said he doesn’t want to eliminate free days or only have them in the dead of winter.
“It just got a little bit out of control and young kids were pushing and shoving,” Wisthoff said. “It’s hormones. It’s spring. We’ll have to figure out how to fix the problem.”