Zookeeper likely to face charge
The man who let a tiger escape at Lowry Park Zoo had worked with bats but had little experience with tigers.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published August 25, 2006
TAMPA - A state wildlife inspector will recommend a criminal charge be filed against a zookeeper who allowed a Sumatran tiger to escape, a mistake that led to the animal's death.
After taking a sworn written statement from the zookeeper, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lt. Steve De Lacure says he will ask prosecutors to file a misdemeanor charge against the Lowry Park Zoo employee.
At a news conference Wednesday, zoo officials characterized the zookeeper as an experienced animal handler. They said the man had worked at an animal foundation outside Gainesville, which prepared him to handle tigers.
The foundation was the Lubee Bat Conservancy, where the man worked for a few months, temporarily hired to handle fruit bats, Lubee director Allyson Walsh said.
Walsh said the man did a fine job. The man's name has not been made public by zoo officials or law enforcement.
Still, she said, "There's a difference between fuzzy fruit bats that eat fruit - and tigers."
She noted a few similarities in their care. Like tigers, bats must remain in enclosures. The man had no problem remembering to shut doors, she said.
"He did that perfectly well," she said.
Walsh said she was never asked to provide a reference to Lowry Park Zoo.
Zoo officials say the man's references came from Sante Fe Community College, where he received a degree. Zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson called the school "very highly regarded."
Without the man's name, school officials could not confirm his credentials. The college has an on-site accredited zoo, where students learn to care for animals. There are no tigers.
"We don't have big carnivores because we're always dealing with beginners," director Jack Brown said.
But Brown said he was confident the school's graduates could handle the responsibility of working with tigers.
The college trains students to work with Caracals, which are a breed of African cats, Brown said. The cats are smaller than tigers, but students treat them like larger cats, making graduates "absolutely prepared to work with tigers," he said.
"The students here learn all about locks," he said. "Obviously, we keep locks locked."
But mistakes happen, he said.
"Golly, did you ever run through a red light?" he said. "It means you're human."
The zookeeper had been with Lowry Park for a month when the tiger escaped, Nelson said. In that time, he had received training, including shadowing other zookeepers, she said. But the training given to new employees depends on the person, she said.
"Every individual is different," she said. "He was always surrounded by the staff."
The zookeeper spoke with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspector and the zoo's general curator, Lee Ann Rottman, on Wednesday evening, the inspector said.
"He was very upset," De Lacure said.
The zookeeper has been placed on paid administrative leave and plans to meet with zoo officials soon, Nelson said.
De Lacure will recommend prosecutors charge the zookeeper with 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, he said.
The charge is typically applied to people who keep exotic pets at their homes, such as former NBA player Matt Geiger, whose 2,000 pound bison roamed north Pinellas County for two days in 2002. In Geiger's case, the charge was dropped.
De Lacure called the Lowry Park tiger's escape "human error."
"I don't think it was intentional," he said.
The zookeeper told him the door latch didn't get closed, De Lacure said.
It was just before closing time Tuesday, when Enshala, the tiger, slipped from her night house through a zookeeper access door left unlocked.
When the zookeeper realized what happened, he quickly told other staff, who assembled a weapons team. Zoo president and chief executive Lex Salisbury, who had been on his way home, returned.
The team armed themselves with four guns from a locked cabinet kept in the general curator's office. Salisbury carried a 12-gauge shotgun. The remaining staff carried two .375 rifles and a 30.06 rifle.
The 14-year-old cat walked into the empty Asian Domain exhibit, which is under construction.
A veterinarian fired a tranquilizer gun at Enshala, trying to calm her. But when the cat lunged at the veterinarian, Salisbury shot the tiger, killing her.
Now, the zoo staff is trying to deal with the animal's death.
"Zookeeping is a very passionate profession," Rottman told reporters Wednesday. "You have to love animals to do this job ... I'm sure that he's feeling very upset by it."
Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified August 25, 2006, 00:32:19]
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