After Pinky the flamingo's violent death, some question birds' protection at Busch Gardens (w/video)

An image from a video on Busch Gardens' YouTube channel shows Pinky, then a 15-year-old Chilean flamingo, in 2011.[Busch Gardens]
An image from a video on Busch Gardens' YouTube channel shows Pinky, then a 15-year-old Chilean flamingo, in 2011.[Busch Gardens]
Published Aug. 5, 2016

TAMPA — Amy Wallace stood by the pen of flamingos at Busch Gardens as one of the birds lightly pecked her, leaving a trail of flamingo kisses from her wrist to her elbow.

The flock of about 20 birds was gentle, the mother of two said, so she was horrified to see what happened next: A man police identified as Joseph Anthony Corrao grabbed one of the flamingos, hoisted her above his head, and yelled, "I got it. I got another one."

Soon Pinky, a gentle bird famous for dancing, was slammed to the ground shrieking in pain, her foot nearly severed. A veterinarian tech responded, Wallace said, cradling the bird and crying.

Corrao laughed, she said. Pinky's injuries were so severe she needed to be euthanized.

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The tragedy has drawn worldwide scrutiny from groups and individuals who also mobilized after the death May 28 of Harambe, the gorilla shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child snuck into his enclosure.

They question how close people should be allowed to approach the wild animals kept in zoos — and whether zoos should exist at all.

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It's a "wake up call," said Rachel Mathews with the PETA Foundation, the animal rights organization known to go to extremes to stop animal suffering.

Birds in captivity are a special concern, Mathews said, because they lack the protections the federal government affords other animals under the Animal Welfare Act.

That means there are no standards on how flamingos should be enclosed. If barriers for birds were better regulated, she said, Pinky might still be alive.

"It's pretty clear cut: The animals should have been better monitored and protected from the public," Mathews said.

When an orangutan escaped from its Busch Gardens enclosure last month, it prompted a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection. A report says the mesh in the enclosure needed further examination and the orangutans should be kept indoors until modifications are made.

No such report will be made in the wake of Pinky's death, Mathews said. The law doesn't require it.

Pictures edited to show Harambe and Pinky together flooded Twitter and other social media by Thursday morning as people mourned online for the zoo animals. Thousands shared "RIP Pinky" posts. Views of videos showing Pinky dancing her signature "Flamingo Flamenco" skyrocketed.

Corrao faces felony charges of animal cruelty. He was still being held in lieu of $5,000 bail on Thursday at the Hillsborough County Jail.

• • •

On Thursday, it appeared to be business as usual for the rest of Pinky's flock at the Busch Gardens Jambo Junction viewing area. A girl leaned over the railing and extended her hand toward one of the birds. It backed out of reach. "Aww, I want to pet you," she said.

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No signs were posted telling visitors not to touch the animals. The waist-high fencing still allowed easy access to willing birds. No one stood watch nearby.

Busch Gardens failed to return repeated calls for comment on Thursday.*

Visitor Jerry Segel, 40, of Boca Raton, said Thursday he was surprised how close people could get to the birds. One of the larger flamingos made him nervous as it moved close to his son, who stood about a head taller than the pen. A more secure enclosure might be a good idea, Segel said.

"They're right there," he said. "I think they probably do need to separate them, at least a little bit."

Another Tampa Bay area attraction known for its Chilean flamingos, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, keeps human hands far from its flock through the design of its exhibit and use of bamboo poles.

Supervisor Bill O'Grady said he's worried about diseases that could be transferred from humans to the mostly young flock of 22 birds. He keeps an eye on security video cameras and has had to stop parents from picking up their children and placing them inside the enclosure.

O'Grady said he wouldn't expect Busch Gardens to change its protocol over what he sees as an anomaly.

"I think they've gone for many, many years without any problems," he said. "You never expect anyone to kill a bird."

Wallace, whose 5-year-old son witnessed Pinky's fall, enjoys seeing the animals up close but said she cares more about their well-being.

"I really hope they do keep it open," she said. "But the animals' safety comes first."

Leaving the park Thursday afternoon, Marissa Fleenor, 19, of Bradenton, also was torn about her Busch Gardens experience.

"I want the flamingos protected but I also want it to be a cool park," she said. "Maybe more guards paying attention, maybe a sign that says they shouldn't be touched ... or picked up and killed."

*On Friday, Busch Gardens sent this response via email:

The safety of our guests, animals and employee ambassadors is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's top priority. After Tuesday's appalling and horrific attack on Pinky, we are currently evaluating the safety protocols for our flamingo flocks.

This flock has lived at this location in the park for almost 20 years, and this week's incident is absolutely unprecedented.

The men and women who care for these animals day in and day out take their responsibilities very seriously. They are mourning the loss of Pinky and are working with the greater Busch Gardens team to take appropriate measures to prevent this from happening again.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.