Zoo misadventure traps family

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer

A Tuesday afternoon excursion to the zoo left a 29-year-old Clovis man and his two daughters in the same situation as the animals — locked behind bars.

Getting off work a little early, Chris Gauna decided to treat his children — 2 and 3 years old — to a trip to Hillcrest Zoo. It was about 4 p.m. when they arrived and paid admission. He learned later the zoo closes at 4 p.m.

“We were just walking around the zoo having a good time. I was kind of wondering why I didn’t see any zookeepers around, I thought we had the zoo to ourselves. … (The girls) were having a blast with the animals,” he said Wednesday during a phone interview.

Just after 5 p.m. Gauna said they headed for the exit. He was surprised to find the gate closed and secured with a deadbolt.

“I kind of felt nervous at first but I found a sense of humor in it,” said Gauna, who called 911 and within a few minutes a zookeeper arrived and set them free, he said.

Mark Yannotti, a zookeeper at Hillcrest, said he was almost home when he got the call from police. He was able to reach someone close to the zoo and arrange for Gauna’s release.

In 19 years with the zoo, Yannotti said he can recall visitors getting locked in about five times. Staff check surveillance monitors and drive through the park but might miss people who slip into a bathroom or simply cross paths, he said.

“It’s not real, real common, but it does happen,” Yannotti said.

Gauna said his wife, friends and coworkers have all been enjoying the humor of the incident.

“I’m going back. I’ll just make sure about the time (of closing) and I’ve got the zookeeper’s number now,” he said.