- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Kansas City Zoo officials and the city’s mayor don’t want to see an end to free-admission days at the zoo, but after several fights broke out Tuesday, followed by gunshots in the facility’s parking lot, they say something needs to change.

No injuries were reported after the shots were fired as people were leaving the zoo near its 4 p.m. closing time, The Kansas City Star (https://bit.ly/1kHVKiv) reported. The shooter hasn’t been found.

The zoo offers four free-admission days per year as thanks to voters in Clay and Jackson counties for approving a 1/8-cent sales tax in 2011 to help fund the zoo. Last year similar fights broke out during a free day in April that was held on a weekend, so zoo officials moved this year’s free days to Tuesdays.

With local schools out for spring break and weather warming up into the 60s, roughly 19,000 people turned out Tuesday - many of whom came later in the day when the zoo reported it was admitting 4,000 an hour into the park.

“The zoo just cannot handle that many people,” zoo director Randy Wisthoff said. “It just gets too crowded. The pathways are too small.”

Last April, attendance was estimated at more than 29,000 on a Sunday free-admission day when violence also broke out.

Several witnesses Tuesday described a chaotic scene of brawls and gunshots. Among them was Kristi Sharp Patterson, who was leaving with her children when she saw people on the ground in handcuffs and crowds gathering around.

“Next thing you know shots were fired in the parking lot right in front of the zoo and everyone started screaming and running in every direction,” Patterson told The Star. “By far the scariest experience ever.”

Zoo staff started cutting off admissions around 3:30 p.m., but witnesses said the employees were having a hard time keeping people out.

Tammy West, who had two small children with her as she was leaving between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m., said several hundred people appeared to be standing around just inside the zoo entrance. She said she saw people brawling with police officers who were struggling to break up fights.

West said she heard yelling and screaming behind her after they left the zoo, and saw someone grab a police officer and throw him to the ground.

Kansas City police spokeswoman Marisa Barnes said several people were arrested for fighting, but she was not aware of any officers being assaulted.

Wisthoff said the zoo can’t do away with the promised free days.

“We want for people to be able to see the zoo free,” he said. “We just have to figure out how to accomplish that and maintain a safe environment.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Sly James said he supports making changes in how the free-admission days are handled, but he’s not in favor of eliminating them.


Information from: The Kansas City Star, https://www.kcstar.com

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