Garth Irvine, 49, told Metro Calgary he has been doing regular tasks at the zoo for nearly 25 years, but last week he encountered a situation unlike any other.
He went into a staff kitchen area next to the gorilla enclosure to find three female apes inside. He said he moved quickly to usher them out, but startled the troop's biggest gorilla — a roughly 205-kilogram silverback named Kakinga.
"He charged — and I had played it out in my mind a million times what would happen in a situation like that. He did exactly what I always thought he would do ... He pinned me down. He gave me a small bite. He flipped me over and dragged me about six feet and then he ran away," Irvine told Metro.
He managed to get to his feet and radioed for help. Irvine estimates the situation was resolved in less than seven minutes.
The zoo announced this week it had fired Irvine, who had previously taken responsibility for leaving a knife inside the enclosure in 2009. The knife was picked up by a western lowland gorilla named Barika. A photo of the primate holding the knife garnered international headlines, but a report by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums cleared the zoo of any wrongdoing.
In 2010, Irvine said he also took the blame when two Malagasy giant hognose snakes slithered down an uncovered drain. The pair was missing for nearly 24 hours before being found.
Irvine said mishaps are bound to happen in an environment with so many moving parts like a zoo.
"I would say absolutely everyone does make mistakes," he said. "The (zoo) facility is full of an amazing group of people that absolutely dedicate their lives to animals."
Irvine said he is going to appeal his dismissal. The process will start with a review by the zoo's director of animal care. It will then proceed to CEO Dr. Clement Lanthier and finally the City of Calgary parks department.
Zoo spokeswoman Trish Exton-Parder said Thursday the zoo had not received any notification of an appeal.
"That is confidential information, anyway, but, no, we have heard nothing," she said.
Irvine said he's also exploring other opportunities, including a possible career path as a public speaker. He is scheduled to give a recap of some of his favourite memories working with gorillas during a public speaker series next week.
"I enjoy them (gorillas) so much because I have tremendous empathy for them as a species," he said. "They're so much like us. They have so much personality and you develop individual relationships with these spectacular animals.
"They challenge me."
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