Officials wonder whether tiger had help escaping

Fatal attack spurs criminal probe

Police arrived at the San Francisco Zoo yesterday to begin investigating Tuesday's death of a 17-year-old visitor. Police arrived at the San Francisco Zoo yesterday to begin investigating Tuesday's death of a 17-year-old visitor. (NOAH BERGER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jordan Robertson
Associated Press / December 27, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - The big cat exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo was cordoned off as a crime scene yesterday, as investigators tried to determine whether a 300-pound Siberian tiger that killed a visitor escaped from its high-walled pen on its own or got help from someone, inadvertent or otherwise.

Police shot the animal to death after a Christmas Day rampage that began when the tiger escaped from an enclosure surrounded by an 18-foot wall and a 20-foot moat. Two brothers who also were visiting the zoo were severely mauled.

Police Chief Heather Fong said the department has opened a criminal investigation to determine whether the tiger got out of its enclosure on its own or had help from someone. Police officials said they have not ruled anything out, including whether the escape was the result of carelessness or a deliberate act.

Fong said officers were gathering evidence from the tiger's enclosure as well as accounts from witnesses.

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

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

Instead, he speculated that visitors might have been fooling around and might have taunted the animal and perhaps even helped it get out by, say, putting a board in the moat.

Similarly, Ron Magill, a spokesman at Miami Metro Zoo, said it is unlikely a zoo tiger could make such a leap, even with a running start.

"Captive tigers aren't nearly in the kind of shape that wild tigers have to be in to survive," he said. He said that taunting can definitely make an animal more aggressive, but "whether it makes it more likely to get out of an exhibit is purely speculative."

Fong, the police chief, would not comment on whether the animal was taunted.

The same tiger, a 4-year-old female named Tatiana, ripped the flesh off a zookeeper's arm just before Christmas a year ago while the woman was feeding the animal through the enclosure's bars. A state investigation faulted the zoo, which has since installed better equipment at the Lion House, where the big cats are kept.

Manuel Mollinedo, zoo director, said yesterday that he gave no thought to destroying Tatiana after the 2006 attack.

"The tiger was acting as a normal tiger does," he said.

As for whether Tatiana showed any warning signs before the attack on Tuesday, Mollinedo said, "She seemed to be very well adjusted into that exhibit."

It was unclear how long the tiger had been loose before it was killed. The three visitors were attacked around closing time on the 125-acre zoo grounds. Four officers hunted down and shot the animal after police got a 911 call from a zoo employee.

The zoo has a response team that can shoot animals, but zoo officials and police described the initial moments after the escape as chaotic.

The dead visitor was identified as 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. of San Jose. The two injured brothers, ages 19 and 23, were upgraded to stable condition at San Francisco General Hospital after surgery. They suffered deep bites and claw wounds on their heads, necks, arms, and hands, said Dr. Rochelle Dicker, who added that their full recovery was expected.

The zoo's director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, said the tiger did not leave through an open door.

"The animal appears to have climbed or otherwise leaped out of the enclosure," he said.

But the zoo's director acknowledged, "We're still not too clear as to exactly what transpired."

The first attack occurred right outside the tiger's enclosure, and the victim died at the scene. Another was about 300 yards away. Fong said that the tiger was mauling the man, and that when officers yelled at it to stop, it turned toward them, and they opened fire. Only then did they see the third victim, police said.

There were five tigers at the zoo - three Sumatrans and two Siberians. Officials initially feared that four of them had gotten loose.

After last year's attack, the state fined the zoo $18,000. The zoo added customized steel mesh over the bars, built in a feeding chute, and increased the distance between the public and the cats.

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