Man in psych ward after entering bear pen

September 28, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Officials at the San Francisco Zoo still don't know how a man entered a grizzly bear exhibit. This comes as new details are emerging about the man who put himself in harm's way on Saturday.

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RAW VIDEO: Cell phone footage captured during the incident

Kenneth Herron, 21, is in a psychiatric ward after undergoing a psychological evaluation at San Francisco General Hospital. He is accused of climbing into a bear's enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo over the weekend. He pleaded not guilty Monday to the two misdemeanor charges that could send him to jail for a year.

A police incident report shows that Herron has a criminal record that includes charges of trying to grab an officer's gun, brandishing a knife, and indecent exposure.On Saturday, he almost got himself killed at the zoo.

Zoo officials still do not know how or why Herron got in. The grotto is surrounded on three sides by a 15 to 20-foot rock wall that is also protected by electrified wires. A 14-foot deep moat encircles the fourth side. On Saturday evening just before 5:00, Herron managed to get inside.

A zoo patron captured it on their cell phone camera. The video shows one of the two bears inside the pen curiously approach and sniff Herron. He stayed still and zoo officials say that probably saved his life.

"He didn't move the entire time. His feet did not move. The bear was standing right over him," said witness Nica DeStefano.

"They started trying to scare the bear away. They were waving their arms, throwing branches in," said witness Bob Whiteman.

Zoo workers fired a 12 gauge shotgun that scared the bears off. Witnesses say Herron laid there, the whole time, in a catatonic state.

Herron was taken to a hospital where he was treated for minor injuries.

"Suffice to say, anyone who enters a cage with a wild animal is someone who may have some kind of mental problems," said San Francisco Police Capt. John Loftus.

"He needs help and it seems like we can't get him any," said Kenneth grandmother, Betty Herron.

Betty Herron believes her grandson's mental problems come from the time he was molested as a 9-year old in foster care. She tried to care for him at her home in Sacramento.

"He wouldn't listen to me and he had paint all over one of the bedrooms and it was just a mess. He cut one of my telephone cords," said Betty Herron.

Kenneth's grandmother says he's been diagnosed as bi-polar, but he refuses to take his medication. She says he's never gotten the psychological help he needs, and he often went into a similar state of mind described by the police who detained him.

"You really didn't know what was going on with him. He wouldn't talk and he would walk like a zombie almost," said Betty Herron.

Herron's grandmother says he would go into these "zombie like" phases for two days at a time. About three months ago, she says it really got real bad when he began tearing up her home, threatening the neighbors and running down the street naked.

ABC7 spoke to Kenneth's other grandmother, Mary Barnett, who recently brought Kenneth into her home after Betty refused to take care of him anymore. Barnett says her grandson is a good person who just needs help.

Barnett described her grandson before he climbed into the grizzly bear enclosure, "He was just acting really quiet. He's had that same blank stare in his eyes like I don't know who this person is. It's not Ken."

However, one thing is clear, Kenneth went off his medication. He was taking Risperdal Consta -- which is used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but Barnett also said he just didn't want to take it anymore.

"They're telling me to keep you on this, so do you need this? Do you need to be on it? And he said, 'You know what? I'm not going to take it, period. I'm not going to take it,'" said Barnett.

Barnett says her grandson doesn't need to be prosecuted, instead he needs help.

"I think he probably should be in the hospital talking to somebody," said Barnett.

Meanwhile, zoo officials say they don't plan to make any changes to the grizzly bear enclosure, because it already meets or exceeds national zoo safety standards.

Dr. Eliott Katz is president of the group "In Defense of Animals" and a frequent critic of zoo management. He inspected the exteriors of the grotto Monday and says there was at least one corner of the rock wall where someone could get in. Katz says the zoo needs to get that fixed immediately.

"This may encourage other people to do some sort of stunt to get some publicity, or to do a challenge, that they really go through the zoo with a fine tooth comb," he said Monday.

"There's only so much you can do," said Zoo Vice President Robert Jenkins Monday. He told ABC7 the enclosures are meant mainly to keep animals in. "We find ways to make it as safe as we can, whatever. For visitors, we use common sense and have a certain amount of respect for are that they're in," he said.

Visitors that spoke with ABC7 Monday said they had no problems with zoo security.

"I'm very satisfied. The zoo is doing all they can," said park visitor Shanna McBurney. "It's the stupid people who come and don't respect the animals. That's the problem.

"I was actually here two years ago, right after the tiger incident and I don't know. I think everything's good and I think they have good security," said Gaby Grossman.

Herron is being held for a psychiatric evaluation. If convicted on his two misdemeanor charges, he could face up to a year in jail.

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