JACKSONVILLE, Fla — An alleged suspicious incident at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens last week put a mother on edge, and now she has a warning for other parents.
Speaking anonymously with First Coast News, she said she and her 2-year-old foster daughter went for a trip to the zoo last Tuesday. Near the entrance, she said she noticed two men who looked out of place.
"I noticed two nicely dressed men walk up and slowly make their way into [a] group of children. They didn’t bother to look at the flamingos, they were observing the children," she wrote in a blog post that has been circulating on social media.
"Shortly after noticing them, they came up and stood beside me," she told First Coast News. "I was confident at that point they had taken a photo of my child, or were trying to. So I interjected my body between the camera and my child."
From there, she alleges that the men followed her and her foster daughter around to the different exhibits.
At one point, the mom said one of the men went to reach into her stroller, where the young girl was strapped in.
"Earlier in the day, he was being friendly and kind, which is why I talked myself out of the idea I was being followed," she said. "But when he went to reach for my child, he was aggressive."
"It seemed like the entire day he was trying to take my attention away from my child."
After confronting the man, the mom said he and the other man left the area. She said she asked zoo staff to be escorted to her car, and she would later file a police report.
"My biggest concern in that moment, and the thought that kept running through my mind on repeat, was, 'I'm in this alone. I'm gonna have to save my baby,'" she said. "This, for us, personally, is a wake up call to be more vigilant."
First Coast News reached out to the Jacksonville Zoo for comment. A zoo spokesperson provided the following response:
"We are aware of the incident recently reported by a guest. Once notified by the guest that an incident occurred hours prior, we immediately activated our security protocol, yet did not find any person(s) fitting the description provided. We have since deferred the situation to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. As a family-friendly destination for the communities of Northeast Florida and beyond for over 105 years, we take security concerns seriously while ensuring every guest feels welcome. We provide guests with a place to relax and connect with animals and nature in a delightful and healthy environment. We'll continue to provide that for them."
First Coast News crime and safety expert Mark Baughman said it's a reminder for parents to be cautious as public, family-oriented spaces continue to reopen.
"You want to, as a parent or as a guardian, make sure that they stay within eye sight of you, within contact of you," he said.
Baughman added that it comes down to "if you see something, say something."
If you feel like you're being followed, or notice suspicious behavior, Baughman said it's important to notify someone nearby and, if needed, to file a police report.
"[A police report] is basically intelligence that you're passing on," he said. "They may not have committed any crime yet, but there's a possibility they could, and law enforcement wants to know and identify that person."
The mother said she hopes sharing the story will keep parents on alert, and ready to handle a similar situation.
"I'm really hoping that my transparency and my willingness to talk about it out loud helps other moms to never have to be in this situation, and if they are that they can find that grit that's inside of them and protect their children as well," she said.