Sunday, November 8, 2009

Deer vs. Lion at the National Zoo

Visitors to the National Zoo in Washington, DC today got a little more of an idea of what life in the wild might be like than they were probably expecting. A baby deer wandered out of Rock Creek Park and into the zoo, wandered around for a while and then jumped a fence into the moat of the lion enclosure. After the deer had been captured by the lions three times and escaped them three times, zoo officials removed the lions from the enclosure and rescued the deer. It was too injured to survive, however, and was euthanized.

Reading about this brought me back to my own first experience assisting a person following a critical incident. The social worker at my school and I completed my first Critical Incident Stress Management class on a Wednesday, and the incident occurred on Friday at our building. For those who've never been there, it would help to understand that one whole wing of Ann Arbor Open School is an open library surrounded by a semicircle of classrooms, most of which are linked by internal doors.

On the day in question, one of the teachers had brought her dog in for a piece of classroom instruction. The dog had spent the last couple of hours of the day asleep under the teacher's desk, and in her hurry to get home for the weekend she forgot he was there. She was halfway home when she realized it, and she turned around to go back.

Meanwhile, the dog woke up from his nap and went exploring. He wandered through the internal doors into the 1st and 2nd grade classroom next door, and then through the next set of doors into the Kindergarten next to that. It was there that he met Mr. Wiggles, a long-haired guinea pig who was the class pet.

Shortly thereafter, just before the teacher came to claim her dog, blood curdling screams could be heard through the building. The social worker and I came running and found the kindergarten teacher standing in the door of her classroom, screaming. The sight was truly ghastly -- blood and guinea pig fur was everywhere, and Mr. Wiggles was no more. It truly looked like a crime scene.

The social worker and I found ourselves drawing heavily on what we had learned that week to stabilize the teacher, help her identify resources and coping techniques, and make sure she would be OK when she got home. When it was over, the social worker said to me, "this isn't really what I envisioned when I took that class." It was funny, but it wasn't.

Which brings us back to the National Zoo. We go there to see things that we, in our industrialized society in North America, could not see otherwise. But two lions attacking a baby deer are not really what we have in mind. Undoubtedly many in the crowd found the scene fascinating. To others, it may well have been traumatizing. Living in modern society, the natural course of a predator and prey -- whether it's lions and fawns, or dogs and guinea pigs, or something a little more common -- is not within our experience, and we may not have an emotional framework with which to understand it when we see it. Or we may have one, but only in the wild, so the sight of guinea pig fur in a classroom or a fawn in the moat of the lion enclosure at the zoo is especially upsetting.

All of this goes to prove the wisdom that early crisis intervention is not about responding to incidents, it's about responding to reactions to incidents. Any time an incident overwhelm's someone's usual emotional coping skills, it is critical. One person's fascinating scene is another's critical incident, and violence doesn't have to be criminal to qualify.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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