Bear Exhibit Intruder Was "Zombie-Like"

Video captures close encounter

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Union City Police
    Kenneth Herron faces up to a year behind bars for climbing into the bear exhibit at the SF Zoo.

    The 21-year-old man who climbed into the grizzly bear exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo Sunday is a lucky man, even though he could face up to a year behind bars.

    Police and zoo officials say they still don't know why Kenneth Herron climbed over the 15- to 20-foot rock wall at about 5 p.m. where two female grizzlies live. More than a dozen people stood and watched as one of the bears approached Herron. They said the bear swatted at the man a couple of times, but never seemed aggressive.

    Zoo Visitor Captures Bear Exhibit Intruder on Video

    [BAY] Zoo Visitor Captures Bear Exhibit Intruder on Video
    About a dozen people watched as a grizzly bear approached and sniffed a man who climbed over a wall at the San Francisco Zoo. (Published Monday, Sep 28, 2009)

    Herron pleaded not guilty Monday to trespassing and disturbing a wild or dangerous animal. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in county jail.

    Video captured of the incident shows a 500-pound grizzly bear slowly walk over to where Kenneth Herron was lying down and sniff his foot. Zoo keepers fired a warning shot into the air. It distracted the massive animal enough and she backed away.

    Bob Whiteman watched the whole thing happen. "I saw the bear get up and approach the man and cautiously and started smelling him." Whiteman said.

    Zoo officials implemented a Code Red as the the curious bear went over to Herron, sniffed him and pawed at his leg.

    Zookeepers fired a warning shot that was enough to get both of the bears to scurry back into their den. The zoo says their swift response was the result of the plan put into place after the fatal tiger mauling at the zoo on Christmas Day 2007 in which a 17-year old boy died.

    San Francisco Police Capt. John Loftus praised the teamwork between police and zoo workers. "The man was not hurt and the animals were not hurt." He said. "I think that's a reflection of the work we've done with the zoo and the zoo officials."

    Herron, who police say was a transient, was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric testing. Police say he has a violent past and was wanted on a warrant out of Union City for allegedly threatening family members with a steak knife in 2006. He also has a conviction for attempting to remove a police officer's gun in Sacramento in January 2008.

    He reportedly suffered minor burns from the exhibit's electric fencing but was not seriously hurt. San Francisco Zoo Vice President Bob Jenkins said Herron was not communicating with police. He was "stoic," Jenkins said, and "almost zombie-like."

    While there is no word on why Herron wanted to enter the exhibit, zoo officials and police have both raised doubts about his mental stability.

    "Anyone who enters a cage has to have some kind of mental problem," Loftus said. But, he said, there was no indication that Herron was drunk or on drugs. Results of the psychological evaluation have not been released.

    Herron did one thing right after he entered the bear's domain that saved his life.

    "The only one thing this individual did right -- and let me reinforce there was only one thing he did right -- was he stayed absolutely still and didn't move." Jenkins said. "If he had try to hit the bear or swat it away, that would have probably evoked a deadly response."

    The two bears in the grizzly enclosure are sisters and about 5 or  6 years old, according to zoo officials. The zoo rescued them in 2005 when  they were going to be euthanized for raiding ranchers' barns in Montana.

    Herron remains in jail under 72-hour psychiatric hold. Bail was set today at $10,000.

    Bay City News contributed to this report.