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Zoo: New keeper at fault in death

Lowry Park officials say a zookeeper hired a month ago failed to lock a tiger's cage, leading to her fatal shooting. Also, Tampa police say zoo officials should have told them as soon as they knew the tiger had escaped.

By Abbie Vansickle
Published August 24, 2006

TAMPA - The day after a Sumatran tiger slipped out of her enclosure at the Lowry Park Zoo, state inspectors examined the facility and opened a criminal investigation.

Zoo officials pinned the blame on a new zookeeper, a man who joined Lowry Park a month ago. The zookeeper had worked with the tigers for just three weeks before the escape.

Officials said the zookeeper did not properly lock the night house for the tiger Enshala, leaving her free to roam about, endangering the zoo staff and visitors and, ultimately, leading to her death.

"It's just really sad," said Lee Ann Rottman, the zoo's general curator. Her eyes filled with tears. "This is the worst of the worst."

Zoo officials say the problem was human error, nothing to do with the facility. But officials are re-examining safety protocol, including whether more than one person should check the night house locks.

Zoo officials also plan to meet with Tampa police to discuss law enforcement concerns. Police were not notified of the escaped tiger, a potential risk to the public, especially since the zoo is in an urban area, said Capt. Tom Wolff.

"I would rather know at the time," he said. "If the thing, the animal that gets loose, makes it past their weapons teams and gets out the park, it would take us a couple minutes to get there."

Investigators had not been able to speak to the zookeeper by late Wednesday afternoon.

If a criminal charge is filed, it would fall under the unsafe handling of captive wildlife or unsafe housing that leads to escape, a misdemeanor punishable by as much as three months in jail and a $500 fine, said Lt. Steve De Lacure, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspector.

The zookeeper, whose name was not released, has been placed on paid administrative leave, said zoo president Lex Salisbury.

The zookeeper has an associate's degree in zookeeping from Sante Fe Community College and worked for two years at a facility in Gainesville, where he garnered excellent reviews, Rottman said.

After a week of training, the zookeeper began working in the greater Asian Domain habitat. His duties have included caring for the tigers, a task he seemed prepared for, zoo staff said.

"I feel that he was adequately trained," Rottman said.

It was 15 minutes before closing time Tuesday when Enshala, a 180-pound animal, walked freely from her night house. As soon as the zookeeper learned about the loose tiger, he notified the zoo staff.

Most of the visitors were already gone, but those still inside went into zoo restaurants and buildings.

Zoo veterinarian David Murphy grabbed a tranquilizer gun, hoping to calm Enshala. Salisbury armed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun.

The rest of the 10-person weapons team positioned themselves around the Asian Domain exhibit, which is closed for renovation. They kept in touch by radio.

Murphy walked up a flight of wooden stairs that runs alongside the exhibit. Nearby, Salisbury crouched on a sidewalk, hiding behind elephant grass, yards from where the tiger roamed inside the construction site.

Murphy aimed and fired the tranquilizer. It's not like the movies, he said later. The tranquilizer doesn't work right away.

Enshala winced and lunged at an ivy-covered wall just feet from where Murphy stood, Salisbury said.

That's when Salisbury fired the shotgun. "I had to protect him (Murphy)," he said.

When the tiger didn't immediately lie still, he shot again, firing a total of four times.

"That's like Rule 1 in zoos: People come first," he said.

Not long after, Enshala died in a muddy moat between the wall and the elephant grass.

It was a terrible ending, but necessary, Salisbury said. "We want to make sure this never happens again," he said.

On Wednesday, as the veterinarian described the post-mortem examination for the tiger, Salisbury became visibly upset, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead with his hand.

While the staff understands that people make mistakes, Rottman said, that zookeeper's error has brought incredible sadness to the zoo. "You do have that empathy," she said. "It's just hard. You understand, and you don't understand."

De Lacure said the zoo's safety procedures were "meeting or exceeding" state standards.

But officials at Busch Gardens amusement park say they require much more training for employees working with dangerous animals.

Before working with tigers, employees must go through three to nine months of training, regardless of experience, said Glenn Young, vice president of zoological operations at the park.

The park also has a "two-person policy" for dangerous animals. Two trained staff members work together, double-checking one another to ensure the doors are closed and locked, he said.

At Big Cat Rescue, a Citrus Park facility that houses several animals, including several tigers, workers get at least 11/2 years of training before working with tigers, said Scott Lope, director of operations.

The animals are kept outdoors in enclosures, so there are no doors to remember to lock, he said.

"When you're opening doors and shutting doors and moving animals, that's the biggest possibility for escape," he said.

"The bigger picture is we lost an animal, we lost a Sumatran tiger," he said. "That's a giant tragedy."

Brian Czarnik said he wasn't surprised by the escape. He was a Level 4 zookeeper who worked with Enshala for about three years until the zoo fired him in July. He said he was terminated for being too outspoken about lack of training, procedures for moving animals and other animal management issues.

"I was 100 percent sure that when they hired new people," Czarnik said, "they wouldn't be trained right."

Salisbury and other zoo staff disputed those claims, saying the man is a disgruntled former employee.

Carie Peterson, 32, also had problems with the direction the zoo was heading in. A zookeeper for eight years, she also worked with Enshala until she quit in July to work for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

She said the zoo seemed to be run too much like a business, and she grew tired of the way management treated employees.

When she watched over the night houses, she said, she would check the locks six to eight times during her shift.

"It's neurotic, but nothing ever happened," she said. "There's no room for error."

She said a supervisor or experienced zookeeper should have aided the worker accused of allowing the tiger to get out. He also should have received at least a month's worth of training at the zoo's night houses.

It's unclear when the criminal investigation or other reviews will be completed, but it is expected to be a lengthy process.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, an organization that accredits zoos, will also look into the incident, said accreditation director Denny Lewis.

The group will get a copy of all reports, then conduct interviews and determine what, if anything, will be done. Typically, zoos have a month to give a report to the AZA, he said.

He said that he couldn't comment on the Lowry Park incident but that such situations are not unheard of.

"You can train and train and train and have all the right procedures in place, but once in a blue moon, something happens because of human error," he said.

He promised a thorough investigation. "We certainly will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety of the animals at the institution," he said.

In the meantime, Salisbury said the zoo will look for another Sumatran tiger and try to return to normal.

Most of all, Salisbury said, he hopes the mission of zoos will not be affected by the incident.

"It's not time for us to give up what we're doing based on this sad thing. ... We feel like we have a moral purpose, and we're making a difference," he said.

 

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