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Victims may have had role in tiger's escape

A zoo official says legs dangled into enclosure may have aided cat.

By the San Francisco Chronicle
Published December 27, 2007

Comparing zoo incidents
The fatal tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo this week recalled for many an episode last year at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. In both cases, the tigers escaped their enclosures. But unlike in San Francisco, no one was hurt at Lowry Park. Here's a look at the two escapes:
Lowry Park Zoo
San Francisco Zoo
Enshalla, a 180-pound female, was put into her night house about 15 minutes before closing time on Aug. 22, 2006, but the house was mistakenly left unlocked, allowing her to roam free. Most visitors were already gone, but those still inside went into zoo restaurants and buildings.
Tatiana, a 300-pound female, attacked three men just after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, about an hour before the zoo's closing time. About 20 to 25 people were still inside, said zoo officials, who have not determined how Tatiana escaped. The tiger's enclosure is surrounded by a 20-foot-wide moat and 18-foot-high walls.
Enshalla was a 14-year-old Sumatran tiger. Sumatran tigers are the smallest of the tiger subspecies and are found in the wild only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, according to the Honolulu Zoo. there are fewer than 500 left in the wild.
Tatiana was a 4-year-old Siberian tiger. They are the largest of the tigers and considered to be the largest cat in the world today. Siberian tigers are classified as endangered, and more than 600 live in captivity worldwide.
A zookeeper notified zoo officials and a 10-person weapons team surrounded Enshalla. A veterinarian shot her with a tranquilizer and Enshalla lurched in the man's direction. Zoo president Lex Salisbury shot the animal with a 12-gauge shotgun, killing her. The zoo, which did not alert Tampa police, promised to do so if a dangerous animal escapes.
A zoo employee called 911 and police officers armed with handguns responded. Four officers went to Tatiana's enclosure and found a man's body. They saw the second victim about 300 yards away, blood running from his head with Tatiana sitting nearby. Tatiana moved in the officers' direction and several of them fired, killing the animal.
Source: Times files, Associated Press
Related stories:
  • Special Report: Zoo Story
    A behind-the-scenes look at Lowry Park Zoo with photo galleries, audio interviews, video of the animals and more.
  • Elegy for the king and queen
  • You probably heard a chimp and a tiger died at Lowry Park. But you should know Herman and Enshalla. (October 1, 2006)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Police were treating the San Francisco Zoo as a crime scene Wednesday, one day after a 350-pound tiger escaped and attacked three visitors, killing a 17-year-old boy before hunting down and seriously injuring two of his friends.

Carlos Sousa Jr. of San Jose was killed Christmas evening outside the tiger grotto, which is protected by a moat about 20 feet wide and a wall 18 feet high. Tatiana, a Siberian tiger that also attacked a zookeeper almost exactly a year ago, was shot by police as she mauled one of the survivors 300 yards away from the grotto.

Zoo officials are still unsure how the tiger escaped the enclosure. Authorities believe she initially attacked all three victims, killing Sousa. Officials believe the cat then followed blood trails to a cafe, where she cornered the other two victims, brothers ages 19 and 23, also from San Jose.

Although some zoo officials speculated that the three teased the tiger, San Francisco police Lt. Leroy Lindo said police had no reason to believe they taunted the animal before the attack, which happened about 5 p.m. Dozens of visitors and some employees were still inside the zoo at the time.

One zoo official insisted that the tiger did not get out through an open door and must have climbed or leaped out. But Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo and a frequent guest on TV, said such a leap would be an unbelievable feat, "virtually impossible."

"There's something going on here," he said. "It just doesn't add up."

When police arrived at the zoo on Christmas evening, they were hampered by a lack of emergency lights, video surveillance cameras and maps. They didn't know how many animals might be on the loose or how many victims might have been injured.

The evidence found at the scene included a shoe and blood in the moat that surrounds the tigers' grotto, raising questions about what role, if any, the victims might have had in accidentally helping the animal escape.

Officials speculated that one of the victims dangled a leg or other body part over the grotto wall and that Tatiana latched onto the limb and climbed out. Police sources said a footprint had been found on a metal fence, suggesting that someone had climbed it to get closer to the big cats.

Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo said it was also likely that the animal was provoked.

"Somebody created a situation that really agitated her and gave her some sort of a method to break out," Mollinedo said. "There is no possible way the cat could have made it out of there in a single leap. I would surmise that there was help.

"A couple of feet dangling over the edge could possibly have done it," he added.

However, police Sgt. Neville Gittens maintained that there was no reason to think that the victims were taunting the tiger.

"We don't know at this point if somebody let the tiger out or it climbed out," Gittens said, adding that if someone did let the animal out it would be considered a crime.

Ron Tilson, a tiger expert who is the director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and author of a tiger husbandry manual, said the tiger probably escaped through an open door.

"For over 200 years, tigers have been kept in captivity in European zoos and for over 100 years in American zoos," Tilson said. "No tiger has ever escaped from its enclosure ... except by human error."

* * *

Authorities were called to the scene after receiving a call that said an unspecified animal might be loose in the zoo and that a visitor had been bitten.

When police arrived, they first found Sousa, who was pronounced dead at the scene. The officers began a search and found the 23-year-old victim lying on the ground with cuts on his face. He was cornered by the tiger.

As the officers approached, police said, the tiger jumped back on top of the man and resumed its attack. The animal then became distracted by the four officers, who were yelling, and advanced toward the officers. All four fired their .40-caliber handguns, hitting the tiger an unknown number of times.

Gittens said the officers did not want to shoot the animal while it was sitting next to the victim.

"I can only imagine the patrons walking around, and suddenly seeing this tiger," he said. "It was probably surreal."

The officers then found the third victim, the 19-year-old, near his brother. The brothers were in stable condition Wednesday at San Francisco General Hospital.

John Sousa said he learned of his nephew's death Wednesday morning.

"This is very rough, very hard on us. There's nothing much we can do. This will be investigated. It's going to take some time," he said. "He was a great kid. He took off on Christmas with friends. We're not sure what happened."

Zoo director Mollinedo said that the zoo has a response team armed with tranquilizers and firearms, but that the scene unfolded "so quickly that the officers found (Tatiana) first."

The zoo does not have video surveillance, police said, so the investigation will be based on physical evidence collected at the zoo, witness statements, the autopsy of the dead man and the necropsy of the tiger.

The zoo was closed Wednesday. The cafe where the victims were found was shuttered, and a dozen police officers gathered with zoo officials nearby.

It was the second time in a year that Tatiana attacked someone. On Dec. 22, 2006, the tiger chewed the flesh off zookeeper Lori Komejan's arm after a public feeding demonstration. A state investigation later ruled that the zoo was at fault for the attack.

"There was never any consideration for putting her down -- the tiger was acting like a normal tiger," Mollinedo said Wednesday.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


FAST FACTS: What happened on Tuesday

  • 5:07 p.m.: The first report that a tiger is loose at the zoo comes in to police.
  • Officers arrive: Police find the body of the first victim, Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, just outside the tiger enclosure.
  • Nearby: About 300 yards away, in front of the zoo cafe, officers find the tiger next to a 23-year-old man, who is lying on the ground with cuts on his face, cornered by the tiger. Officers yell at the tiger, it turns toward them, and they open fire, killing it.
  • A third victim: Police then discover another injured victim nearby. Officials said they think the cat initially attacked all three and then followed blood trails to the cafe, where it cornered the other two men, who are brothers. It was unclear how long the tiger was loose before it was killed. The zoo does not have video surveillance.

Times wires

Other incidents involving captive animals in the U.S.:

  • July 14: Sumatran tiger bites a keeper in an exhibit yard at the San Antonio Zoo after the keeper forgets to lock gates. He survives.
  • Feb. 24: Jaguar kills a Denver Zoo keeper before being fatally shot.
  • Dec. 22, 2006: The San Francisco Zoo's Tatiana mauls a zookeeper during a public feeding.
  • Dec. 22, 2006: A clouded leopard bolts from a wire-mesh enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington. It is found snoozing outside the exhibit 30 minutes later.
  • Nov. 29, 2006: A trainer is bitten and held underwater by a 7,000-pound killer whale during a show at SeaWorld Adventure Park in San Diego. He escapes with a broken foot.
  • Sept. 10, 2005: Three chimpanzees from Zoo Nebraska are killed after they escape from their enclosure. A padlock was not closed.
  • March 3, 2005: Two chimps at the Animal Ranch wildlife sanctuary near Bakersfield, Calif., attack a man and his wife, maiming the man, before being shot to death.
  • July 13, 2004: A Florida wildlife officer kills a tiger that escaped from the property of former Tarzan actor Steve Sipek in Loxahatchee.
  • March 18, 2004: A gorilla breaks out of its Dallas Zoo enclosure, snatches a toddler with his teeth and attacks three other people before being shot to death.
  • Oct. 3, 2003: Illusionist Roy Horn is severely mauled by a tiger in Las Vegas.
  • Sept. 28, 2003: A 300-pound gorilla escapes at Boston's zoo, attacking a 2-year-old and a zoo employee before being tranquilized.

Source: Associated Press

[Last modified December 27, 2007, 00:39:11]

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