SALT LAKE CITY — Members of a University of Utah fraternity have been accused of vandalizing the Hogle Zoo Saturday and forcing its BooLights event to close an hour early, zoo officials said in a Facebook post Monday.
The zoo released a follow-up statement the same day saying the Sigma Chi Fraternity had contacted them and were "committed to making things correct."
"They've been great," said Erica Hansen, Hogle Zoo's community relations coordinator. "We've been impressed with the university, with the fraternity, as well as actually several other fraternities that also all reached out offering to help, to pitch in, to clean, to redecorate, to do anything they can to help, which is great."
The alleged incident occurred after the fraternity purchased 150 tickets to the zoo's BooLights event on Saturday, buying out the 8 p.m. time slot.
While there, according to the zoo's post, they drank alcohol, smashed bottles and cans in the zoo's parking lot and defaced Halloween decorations.
They are also accused of breaking wooden fencing throughout the zoo, and at least one member is said to have flashed a knife at a carousel operator, which led to BooLights shutting down an hour early, costing the zoo money in potential revenue, cleanup and repairs.
"I certainly don't want to vilify or implicate anyone," Hansen said. "Where it gets tricky and scary is that it is the zoo, it is dark and there are little kids here. So when people are acting erratically, whether that's from drinking prior to arrival or the one had a pocket knife on him, everybody gets more tense."
The zoo has filed a police report and is letting authorities handle legal issues, Hansen said.
Salt Lake Police Sgt. Keith Horrocks confirmed that the department has received a report for vandalism but said identifying who was involved will take time.
The department also received a report of aggravated assault, Horrocks said, which will take time to investigate before charges can be processed.
Students who were involved could also face repercussions from the University of Utah, said Chris Nelson, the school's communications director.
"Of course, the Dean of Students Office oversees student discipline behavior, and so they'll look closely at this and obviously talk to Sigma Chi's leadership team of the national chapter to determine what else, if anything, the university would do with the fraternity," he said. "And that could range anything from requiring additional education for members of the fraternity to suspending the chapter for a little while and really anything in between."
Where it gets tricky and scary is that it is the zoo, it is dark and there are little kids here. So when people are acting erratically, whether that's from drinking prior to arrival or the one had a pocket knife on him, everybody gets more tense.
–Erica Hansen, Hogle Zoo's community relations coordinator
While Nelson said he couldn't speak for the fraternity, he thinks the first step in making reparations is to talk with both local and national leadership of the fraternity and discuss how to make things right.
A thorough investigation will precede any consequences from the university.
"The Sigma Chi Fraternity is our largest fraternity, and so the question is was it a handful of students? Was it all the students? And so obviously we want to make sure our response is proportional to what was actually done," Nelson said.
The zoo's initial post asking people to forward on photos and videos of fraternity members defacing zoo property took a dark turn, with fraternity members reportedly receiving death threats, according to the zoo.
The post has since been taken down.
"We made our post in the hopes of discouraging future behavior, but also to find families who may have witnessed something and/or had their evenings cut short," the zoo stated in another Facebook post. "We were dismayed that turned to people tracking down students on social media and sending mean messages."
"The Facebook post got so explosive. It really caught us off guard, and that wasn't the intention at all," Hansen said. "We love our neighbors over here on the hill, and we've always had a great relationship with them. And we're just looking forward to another great two weeks of BooLights."
BooLights is a seasonal light event that features Halloween-themed decorations. This year, the event is scheduled to run on select days from Oct. 1 to Oct. 30.
"It's kind of an opportunity for families to get out and have it not be quite so spooky, just a little bit more family friendly," Hansen said.
The University of Utah's Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life could not be reached for comment.