Zoos to nervous public: Be calm

Officials reviewing safety procedures after fatal mauling

December 27, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

The zookeepers playfully called to Hobbes, a handsome, seemingly benign feline prowling his mesh-enclosed cage.

But Mallory Stone and her fellow keepers know the leopard they care for at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is no pet to be played with, a fact made all the more powerful by this week's fatal attack by a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo.

"It doesn't necessarily scare me, but it makes me more aware that my life is on the line every day," said Stone, who has been a keeper at the zoo for over a year and a half.

Across the country yesterday, zoo officials and animal trainers and keepers questioned what happened Tuesday when a Siberian tiger escaped from its enclosure and attacked three people, killing 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and putting two men into the hospital. The men were listed in stable condition yesterday, suffering deep bites and claw cuts on their heads, necks, arms and hands.

The zoo, which was closed yesterday, was being treated as a crime scene as investigators try to determine how the 300-pound tiger, named Tatiana, escaped across a 15-foot- wide moat with 20-foot-high walls. San Francisco police said yesterday that they have not ruled anything out, including whether the escape was the result of carelessness or a deliberate act.

Officers who found the victims and the tiger, which was still attacking one of the men, shot Tatiana to death.

A year earlier, the same tiger had reached through the bars of her cage and mauled a zookeeper's arms. California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the zoo was to blame for the incident and fined it $18,000.

As a result, the zoo added steel mesh over the bars of the cage, built a feeding chute and increased the distance between the tigers and the public.

Animal experts agree that when the necessary safety precautions and protocols are taken, such incidents are unheard of.

"Animal escapes are very rare" at zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization, which has 216 members, including the San Francisco and Maryland zoos. "No one can remember when such an escape resulted in a fatality. One hundred and fifty-seven million people visited our accredited members every year, and they have safe, fun educational experiences. We have a great safety record."

The AZA standards will require the San Francisco Zoo to provide a report to its Accreditation Commission. That report will be reviewed to determine whether any actions must be taken.

Feldman, like other zoo officials, said it was too early to say whether additional safety precautions should be taken. "We need to wait and make sure we have all the facts," he said. "We're always looking to make sure that we improve and make sure that the visitors are safe and that they have a great experience."

AZA zoos are required to follow safety emergency protocols that exceed federal, state and local requirements, and include regular safety training and emergency drills.

Lapses, zoo and animals experts say, are usually due to human error.

"We do a better job of keeping animals from getting out than people getting in," Feldman said.

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, said if it's determined that the tiger at the San Francisco Zoo leaped out of her cage, other zoos will likely reassess their tiger enclosures.

"This is a first in this country," Hanna said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "I've never heard of an individual [zoo visitor] being killed by an animal. It's much safer going to a zoo than getting in your car and going down the driveway."

Maryland Zoo officials can't recall any incidents where humans have been injured or killed by their animals except for a 1976 episode in which a polar bear killed a man who had jumped a protective fence.

And officials at the National Zoo in Washington also said the only fatality they can recall is an incident in 1995 in which a 36-year- old woman was found dead inside the lions' pen in what was ruled a suicide. After the incident, the zoo stopped keeping its lions and tigers outside overnight, said spokeswoman Sarah Taylor.

The National Zoo has five Sumatra tigers. "We haven't had any incidents with our tigers getting out into a public area," she said.

Though the Maryland Zoo once had Siberian tigers, it now has none. Animals that pose similar risks include two lions, two cheetahs and two leopards, said Mike McClure, curator of the zoo.

The protocol for dealing with such dangerous animals - particularly the lions and leopards - is extensive, said McClure. Trainers and keepers never come into direct contact with such animals. There is always a protective steel mesh wiring between people and a lion or leopard.

When the animals are being moved from their inside quarters to the outside, zookeepers will place them in a vacant holding area in between as an extra precaution.

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