Zoo keeper put fingers in lion's cage
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
It was a basic mistake, even if the bars were only 1 1/2-inches apart, said a state wildlife investigator reviewing the incident.
In a split second, the 364-pound feline pounced and bit down on a finger or two before severing Bourassa's right arm at the elbow.
The arm was recovered on the floor of the cage but doctors at Tampa General Hospital were unable to reattach it, a spokesman said. Bourassa, a 21-year-old former Miss Land O'Lakes, was listed in good condition Monday.
The park's policy forbids putting any appendage inside the bars, said Lt. Steve DeLacure of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The lion was caged according to regulations, he said.
"This was not a freak accident because it could have been avoided," said DeLacure, labeling it "a handling error."
Bourassa, known in her Citrus Park neighborhood as a chipper beauty with aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, minutes earlier had finished a routine training exercise with Max, the 12-year-old lion.
Max was ordered to lie down and stick its tail through the bars. The exercise is performed weekly so zoologists can draw blood for medical purposes. The animal has undergone the training exercise since it was brought to Busch Gardens in 1997.
No blood was taken during Sunday's exercise, said Glenn Young, the park's vice president of zoological operations.
Bourassa's job was to give bits of meat to Max as a reward for good behavior. DeLacure said the scent of food may have remained on her hand, or glove, which might have incited the animal to bite down.
"She may have had the glove on, and that would have been enough of a target," DeLacure said.
Officials were still trying to interview witnesses Monday to determine how the lion severed Bourassa's arm.
At the time of the ordeal, she was giving an approved, behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo to her mother, father, boyfriend and boyfriend's parents. It occurred in an area away from zoo patrons.
Young said Max will remain in the "Edge of Africa" exhibit, though he has been temporarily taken out of display. Private tours that were available only to zoologists' families have been suspended, Young said.
Bourassa was known even as a child to be a friend to animals. She took in dogs, owned horses and even cows, said longtime neighbors. At one time, she worked part time at an animal clinic.
"She was always bringing around the stray cats," said neighbor Monica Mora, 36. "She loves animals."
She joined the Future Farmers of America while at Gaither High School. At 15, she was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times, giddy after success at the State Fair: "I cried, I was so proud when my milk heifer won blue ribbons at the fair."
As a senior, she won the title of Miss Land O'Lakes 1998 and represented the community for a year in parades and other events.
"She's a little cowgirl," her mother, Mary Bourassa, then told the Times. She entered Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga., and had plans to study veterinary science, with a specialty in equine medicine.
She had worked at Busch Gardens for a year.
"There aren't too many kids who follow their dreams and she was one of them," said another longtime neighbor, Melody Robinson, 43.
DeLacure said it doesn't appear Busch Gardens is to blame. Its procedures are well-regarded, he said. "This facility sets the standard for the whole country."
Young said Bourassa was trained and "proficient in our operating protocols."
Her family kept vigil at the hospital and declined comment to reporters.
A computer-printed note posted inside a window next to her front door read:
"IF YOU WORK IN A ZOO . . . PLEASE . . . TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF . . . THANKS, MOM." Two hearts were also printed on the note.
-- Staff writer Amy Herdy contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
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