The president of Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa shoots the cat to protect a veterinarian, who had tried to tranquilize it.
TAMPA - With 15 minutes until closing time, Lowry Park Zoo keepers began the evening ritual of putting Enshala, a Sumatran tiger, into her night house.
But an unlocked latch allowed the 14-year-old cat to slip out of her concrete bedroom and into the empty Asian Domain exhibit, a habitat about half the size of a football field that is under renovation. The staff quickly herded the last handful of visitors into the safety of the zoo's restaurants or sent them home.
A 10-person weapons team assembled, and zoo president and chief executive Lex Salisbury, who had been on his way home, came back and armed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Salisbury positioned himself among some elephant grass in the Asian Domain exhibit, just yards from the roaming tiger. His task: protect a staff veterinarian, armed with a tranquilizer dart gun, from the 180-pound animal.
"His life is in my hands, and he's trusting me with his life," Salisbury said. "That's what's going through my mind."
A tranquilizer dart struck the tiger but sent the agitated animal lurching toward the animal doctor and a 7-foot wall separating the closed exhibit from public areas. So Salisbury shot Enshala and killed her, marking the first time the zoo killed an animal because it posed a danger.
"I feel sick to my stomach. I had to do that," said a visibly distressed Salisbury, who hugged staff members who consoled him. He shot the tiger four times, two days before she would have turned 15. "I'm glad I had to do it, and I didn't have to delegate it to anyone else."
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office trains zookeepers for incidents like these, and two guns were trained on the cat during the 50 minutes it was outside its pen.
The open latch is under investigation and repercussions for the "human error" could include firing, Salisbury said.
Sumatran tigers are the smallest of the tiger subspecies and are only found in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, according to the Honolulu Zoo. There are fewer than 500 left in the wild.
Enshala was born at Lowry Park Zoo to a mother named Tuka, who was on loan from the San Diego Zoo, and a father, Dutch, who was on loan from a zoo in the Netherlands.
One of three cubs born Aug. 24, 1991, she made her public debut three months later before hundreds of visitors. Raymond James Associates Inc. used the occasion to present the zoo with a $100,000 check to sponsor the tigers' natural outdoor habitat.
Enshala spent most of her time at the zoo, except for three years when she lived at the Zoo in Gulf Breeze. Sumatran tigers generally breed successfully in captivity, and zookeepers tried to pair Enshala with males. But the efforts failed in her case.
The death was the zoo's second this year. Herman, a 42-year-old African-born chimpanzee who had been at the zoo since 1965, died in June after a violent altercation with another chimp. In 2002, three wallabies died while being transported from Ocala to the zoo in the back of a Ryder truck. In 1999, a pack of wild dogs burrowed under a zoo fence and killed two flamingos.
The last reported dangerous human-animal confrontation at the zoo took place in 1993, when the elephant Tillie killed her 24-year-old handler.
The loss of Enshala leaves Lowry Park Zoo with Eric, 5, as its lone Sumatran. Zookeepers said there was no other choice but to kill Enshala. The tiger could have scaled the walls surrounding the construction in the Asian Domain exhibit and escaped to public areas.
"At this point in my career, you understand the limitations of your job," said David Murphy, staff veterinarian since 1990, who shot the tranquilizer dart. "And this is one of those limitations."
Over the last few months, Murphy had immobilized the cat to run diagnostic tests to study her reproductive problems and "old age" issues. Sumatrans have life expectancies of about 17 years, Murphy said.
He said the cat wasn't friendly toward him - few animals like doctor's exams - but the cat had never given zookeepers any problems before.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3368.