Tiger's escape from enclosure puzzles specialists

San Francisco Zoo mauling probed by several agencies

The tiger enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo has been empty since a Siberian tiger escaped from the grotto on Christmas and attacked three visitors, killing one before police fatally shot it. The tiger enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo has been empty since a Siberian tiger escaped from the grotto on Christmas and attacked three visitors, killing one before police fatally shot it. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Charles Piller
Los Angeles Times / December 28, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - The director of the San Francisco Zoo said yesterday that he had overstated the height of the sheer wall in the tiger grotto - and that the tiger that killed a teenage visitor on Christmas may have been able to escape over the walls.

Manuel Mollinedo said that the height of the sheer wall in the tiger grotto was 12 1/2 feet, not 18 feet as he had previously stated.

Outside zoo specialists immediately questioned whether such a height was adequate.

But zoo and police officials stressed at a news conference that they still have not determined exactly how Tatiana, a 350-pound Siberian tiger, found her way out of her cage to kill 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and badly injure two others.

At a news conference with police outside the gates of the zoo, Mollinedo also corrected his previous figure for the width of the grotto's dry moat. He said it was 33 feet across, not 20.

Mollinedo said inspectors from the American Zoological Association had not raised concerns about the security of the structure in visits before the attack. He said he would invite an official from the organization to assist in a reevaluation of the site.

The zoo director said the rear doors of the tiger exhibit were secured during the attack.

"My speculation is that the animal came out of that grotto at some location," Mollinedo said. "How she was able to jump that high is amazing to me."

The accreditation organization said it would wait for a report from the zoo to draw any conclusions. But in a release posted on its website, it said the attack was the first "visitor fatality resulting from an animal escape at an AZA-accredited zoo."

The organization does not specify wall or moat dimensions, but the recommended height is 16 feet - a 14-foot wall or fence, plus a 2-foot ledge pointed into the enclosure at a 45-degree angle, said Ron Tilson, conservation director at the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator of the the American Zoological Association's Tiger Species Survival Plan.

"I know from personal observation that an adult Siberian male tiger - a little bit bigger than an adult female - can step on its hind legs and reach its paw up to 12 feet," Tilson said. "And any cat that can get its paws on a ledge can get up on the ledge."

Asked why a tiger had never previously escaped from the 1940s-era grotto, Tilson replied, "It probably didn't want to."

US Department of Agriculture inspectors arrived yesterday to conduct their own investigation of animal care at the San Francisco Zoo, Mollinedo said.

The zoo plans to improve the big-cat exhibits, installing new fencing, surveillance cameras, and electrified wires.

Contrary to published reports, Police Chief Heather Fong said police had no information to suggest that any of those who were attacked dangled a leg or other body part over the sheer wall, perhaps making it easier for the tiger to climb out.

She said that the police found a shoeprint on the railing of a low fence that separates the grotto from the visitor walkway and that police are trying to determine whether the print matches any of the shoes of the three victims. But she denied published reports that a shoe was found beyond the fence, inside the enclosure.

The only lost shoe, she said, was found at the Terrace Cafe, about 300 yards from the grotto, where police encountered the two badly injured victims and fatally shot the tiger.

Fong provided some new details of how the attack unfolded.

All three victims were at the grotto when the attack began, she said. When Sousa was attacked, the other two, who were brothers, yelled to distract the tiger. Tatiana released Sousa and turned toward the brothers, injuring one.

The brothers fled to the cafe, but the tiger followed and mauled the second brother there.

Responding to the emergency call, police found Sousa dead near the grotto.

After being alerted by zoo staff that the animal was heading toward the cafe, they pursued and found the tiger mauling one of the brothers.

The tiger ignored the police officers' shouts, but when a second police car arrived, Tatiana turned on the officers.

"To protect the victim as well as everyone else, they fired," killing the animal, Fong said.

The brothers remained hospitalized in stable condition yesterday at San Francisco General Hospital.

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