Rare Antelope Dies at Tennessee Zoo After Choking on Trash Discarded by Visitor

By: Lauren Fokas | Published: Jun 19, 2024

All zoos have rules to keep visitors and animals safe from harm. When people don’t follow those regulations, someone gets hurt, and in this case, it was an antelope named Lief.

Lief was only seven years old when he died last week at the Brights Zoo in Tennessee after choking on a piece of trash left behind by a visitor. The Brights Zoo announced Lief’s passing with a plea to all future visitors to please follow the rules set in place so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Lief, the Sitatunga Antelope

Lief, the sitatunga antelope, had lived at the Brights Zoo in Tennessee since he was one year old. He was born on July 30, 2016, and died on June 8, 2024. But as the zookeepers at Brights Zoo said, “He still had a lot of life to live.”

A photograph of Lief the antelope at the Brights Zoo before he passed away

Source: Brights Zoo

In fact, according to their collected data, Lief could have lived comfortably in the zoo for another 15 years, as most sitatunga antelopes live for more than 20 years in human care.

The Rare Sitatunga Antelope

Lief was a member of the extremely rare sitatunga antelope species, which is native only to Africa and specifically lives in richly vegetated swamplands.

A photograph of a sitatunga antelope in a swamp in the wild

Source: iStock

According to the Africa Wildlife Foundation, their splayed hooves “make them clumsy and vulnerable on firm terrain but well-adapted for walking through buddy, vegetated swamplands. Both males and females have brown coats and can have several stripes, and sometimes, they develop large curled horns.”

Lief the Antelope’s Tragic Accident

Lief’s horns were still growing when tragedy struck. On June 8, 2024, Lief, the antelope, began choking and suddenly passed away in his enclosure. The Brights Zoo reported that a veterinarian arrived on the scene but was unable to revive him.

A young male sitatunga antelope in a zoo

Source: Wikipedia

After he passed, the veterinarian determined that Lief had died choking on a small cap of a baby food pouch, which is strictly prohibited from the zoo grounds.

Brights Zoo Announced Lief’s Untimely Passing

That very same day, the Brights Zoo announced Lief’s passing on its Facebook page. The zoo wrote, “Today we lost a beloved animal due to choking.”

A screenshot of a post by the Brights Zoo on Facebook

Source: @BrightsZoo/Facebook

However, the post’s main objective was to explain why squeezable food pouches are prohibited in the park so that this accident never happens again.

Why Are Squeezable Pouches Dangerous?

Most people have seen baby or toddler squeezable food pouches as they have quickly become one of the most popular snacks for America’s little ones. Parents and caretakers love them because they are nutritious, easy to pack, and most children can eat them all by themselves.

A photograph of trash, including two strawberry squeezable pouches, from the Brights Zoo

Source: @BrightsZoo/Facebook

But these squeezable pouches are colorful and most often have a vibrant cap on top, making them look like bits of food to unknowing animals.


Many Zoos Have Outlawed Squeezable Food Pouches

Because of their attractive and dangerous packaging, many zoos around the country have strictly forbidden visitors from bringing them into the park. In fact, Brights Zoo in Tennessee already had a “no squeezable pouch” rule in place when Lief passed away.

A green and white sign at a zoo that reads “Zoo Codes of Conducts”

Source: Flickr

The Brights Zoo post explained, “Some ask why we don’t allow squeezable pouches at the zoo. The reason is simple – the packaging is dangerous to our animals. If you look at these lids from an animal perspective, it looks like food.”


The Brights Zoo Checks Visitors' Bags to Prevent Accidents

To ensure the safety of its animals, Brights Zoo has already implemented an additional rule: staff check all bags before visitors can enter the park. While this may seem strict, the zoo says it’s absolutely necessary.

A man wearing blue gloves is checking the inside of a bag

Source: Shutterstock

“This is what forced us to do bag searches but yet some people find ways to sneak these in,” the Brights Zoo wrote.


Zoo Visitors Should Only Be Eating in Designated Spaces

Additionally, the Brights Zoo wrote, “Guests are able to go to their car or the picnic areas in our parking lot as many times as they wish and re-enter the zoo” if they want to enjoy the snacks they packed for their families.

A young girl at the zoo holds her food in front of a lemur enclosure

Source: Freepik

Again, while these regulations may seem pedantic, they are extremely important. Children and adults alike should refrain from eating anything near the animal enclosures for their own safety and the animals’.


“People Need to Understand That Rules Are There for a Reason”

Anyone who has visited a zoo understands that the park often has many rules, most of which are in place to protect both the animals and the visitors. Hundreds of Facebook users commented on the post by Brights Zoo to mourn the loss of Lief, the antelope, and many noted that people need to be more careful when visiting a zoo with wild animals.

A sign at the zoo reads “Please Do Not Feed the Animals”

Source: Wikidata

One user wrote, “People need to understand that rules are there for a reason.” Another said, “It’s a sad thing when you decide that breaking the rules and having a squeezable pouch is more important than the life of an animal.”


It’s Crucial to Ensure No Trash Gets Into an Enclosure

One Facebook user wrote on the zoo’s most recent post, “Seems like the biggest problem is trash getting in animal enclosures. I mean I realize these specific items are MOST harmful but any trash that is not food for them that gets in with the animals can become dangerous.”

Two overflowing trash bins at a park

Source: Adobe Stock

Which, of course, is true. Anyone reading this story should be hyper-aware that all trash, including but not limited to squeeze pouches, can be dangerous to the wildlife in the zoo.


The Brights Zoo Is Dedicated to Keeping Its Visitors and Animals Safe

The tragic story of Lief, the antelope, is an important warning to people all around the world to be exceptionally careful with their possessions and trash when visiting a zoo with live animals.

A promotional photograph with several pictures of animals and the logo for the Brights Zoo in Tennessee

Source: @RCMedia Services/YouTube

Zoos like the Brights Zoo in Tennessee will do their best to implement the necessary rules to keep their animals safe, but it’s ultimately up to the visitors to follow those rules so that nothing like this happens again.