A beloved zookeeper among people killed as Memphis' pedestrian crisis continues

This story has been updated with input from the City of Memphis' Bikeway & Pedestrian Program.

Richard Meek worked for decades as an adored zookeeper frequently found in the giraffe exhibit, or entertaining crowds of visitors with his keen knowledge of bizarre animal trivia tidbits.

Julie Maxwell had recently celebrated 35 years as a nursing assistant at LeBonheur Children's Research Hospital, working in rooms with sick children and anxious caretakers.

Both died within 48 hours of each other from injuries sustained after a driver hit them as they walked and kept on driving.

Memphis has earned the distinction as the third deadliest city in the U.S. for pedestrians. That rating was granted by Smart City Growth after researchers compiled fatal and non-fatal data from 2016 until 2020.

Though the City of Memphis has made incremental progress at redesigning streets with pedestrian safety as the goal, as opposed to the former goal of expediting cars as quickly as possible through the city, the number of people killed each year continues to rise.

And 2022 is by far the worst on record — 67 people were killed while walking as of Nov. 6, compared to 53 as of Nov. 6, 2021.

Memphis police did not answer follow-up inquiries about additional deaths. And since that initial number was provided — Meek succumbed to his injuries, Maxwell was killed while walking with her son, and an unidentified pedestrian was killed on Southern Avenue and Goodlett Street.

Two other pedestrians were hit by cars and rushed to areas hospitals in critical condition. It's not clear whether they survived. This places the number killed this year around 70, but it could be higher.

For comparison, the traffic-snarled city of Nashville has lost 40 pedestrians in traffic accidents.

Further, the city's data portal does not have a category for pedestrian injuries and death, and Memphis police do not always alert the public when there is such an incident.

Largely, the epidemic remains difficult for the public to track.

Piecemeal efforts during an enduring problem

It's unknown what, if anything, is being done about this crisis. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen sponsored the Complete Streets Act in late 2019, which would require states to provide technical assistance and funding for building projects such as sidewalks, crosswalks and bus stops. The bill was reintroduced in 2021 but has remained stalled in committee.

Cohen's efforts in Congress appear to be the only time in recent memory that a local elected has searched for a solution.

When The Commercial Appeal began focusing on the number of pedestrian deaths in 2020, Nick Oyler, the manager for the city's Bikeway & Pedestrian Program, described the number of fatalities as a "traffic violence crisis."

He doesn't see any signs of reversal.

"If anything, this trend is worsening," Oyler said. "Based off of this trend, unless something entirely unexpected happens, I expect we’ll end the year with 80 fatalities."

The Bikeway & Pedestrian Program manages projects that range from adding sidewalks in needed areas and reducing traffic flow in pedestrian-heavy areas like the Medical District. Next, the city will implement safety measures at the intersection of Farm Road and Walnut Grove Road, where pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by cars as recently as 2020.

These projects are a start, but also a dent in overhauling city roads in a city with a sprawling geographic area.

Oyler notes that in Memphis, these types of projects do not have a committed source of local funding. Rather, Oyler said, his department must rely on state and federal funding.

Inaction remains the norm, as Memphis families pay the price

While the issue of pedestrian deaths and injuries continues, mostly unacknowledged, Memphis families bury their loved ones and survivors endure significant injuries and the accompanying medical costs.

Meek's wife, Kathy Meek, can't bring herself to plan a memorial for her husband. Not yet. Maybe in the spring, she said.

"Every morning he would go for a walk before dawn," Kathy Meek said. "He had nightmares, he would wake up and have coffee and walk to clear his head."

Richard Meek was crossing North Parkway during one of his mornings walks when he was struck by a car. Kathy Meek called the police when Richard Meek did not return to his house.

"I can understand that in the dark he might have been hard to see," she said. "I can't understand driving away. They should have stopped."

Richard Meek stayed in the ICU for weeks until he was transferred to hospice care. In this time, Kathy Meek slowly understood her husband wouldn't make it.

They worked together at the zoo for 30 years, and enjoyed 10 years retired together.

"We had a good run," Kathy Meek said, while suppressing a sob. "But I feel like I was robbed of the future we were supposed to have."

Initially, she was in touch with the police following the accident. When the report of her husband's accident made it to traffic investigations, an officer in that unit would follow up from time to time. He wanted to know if Richard Meek was cognizant enough to tell the police what happened. He never reached lucidity.

After Richard Meek died, Kathy Meek emailed the investigating officer to let him know. She hasn't heard back.

Her experience underscores another component of the problem — the public does not know how often these offenses are prosecuted.

As of Wednesday, only three names appear in the Shelby County jail with vehicular homicides. It's unclear if those charges are related to pedestrian fatalities, and court documents do not offer further clarity.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy's office gave The Commercial Appeal the figures for vehicular homicide cases filed for the last three years: 10 in 2020, 12 in 2021, and seven so far in 2022. It's not clear if any of those filings relate to pedestrian accidents and hit-and-runs.

The unacknowledged crisis leaves people like Kathy Meek essentially on their own. She may never hear another word from officials regarding the person who took her husband's life.

As for the person who did kill Richard Meek, the long-time zookeeper who entertained crowds and prioritized politeness, Kathy Meek hopes for one thing — that this person has nightmares, "for the rest of their lives."

Micaela Watts covers access and equity for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at micaela.watts@commercialappeal.com.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis pedestrian deaths all time high zoo keeper the latest victim