Saturday, December 31, 1988

1988 Big Cat Attacks

The Associated Press
May 14, 1988, Saturday, AM cycle
Calls For Death Of Tiger Involved In Fatal Mauling Worry Zoo Officials

Zoo officials posted an extra guard and took tigers and other large cats off public display after receiving telephone calls demanding death for a Siberian tiger that killed a zoo keeper.

Houston Zoo officials said Friday that they have no plans to kill or transfer Miguel, the 450-pound Siberian tiger that fatally mauled Ricardo Tovar on Thursday.

No one saw or heard the attack on Tovar, but officials said the tiger apparently smashed through a reinforced, wire-and-glass window and dragged Tovar outside before killing him. "This is a wild animal," said parks department director Donald Olson. "It's not a domesticated animal. One of the purposes of a zoo is to preserve species, and tigers are not a domesticated species."

The tigers and other cats would be kept off display at least until Monday, Olson said. "We're leaving them off display to let things settle down," he said.

Olson said he didn't know what was said in the phone calls, but that the calls came from people who wanted the tiger killed. Officials have said that the animal, which is on the endangered species list, poses no danger to the public.

While some were calling for Miguel's death, several zoo visitors vigorously defended the tiger on Friday.

"I'm sorry for the man. But, I don't think he would have wanted it destroyed," said Pat Hodge.

Suzy Sanders, 23, who has a special interest in big cats and goes to the zoo regularly, said: "I don't want to be mean, but I think it was more human stupidity. They knew that animal was dangerous. Obviously, I think more caution should have been taken."

Larry Warrendorf, 52, a night keeper-watchman at the zoo, said he heard negative comments from a few visitors walking by the exhibit area where Tovar was killed.

"They were wondering why the cat wasn't killed, among other things," Warrendorf said. "That's the number one question I hear: What are they going to do with the cat?"'

Warrendorf said many people "seem to act as if they want revenge."

"We don't know what to expect with the nature of people and the nature of animals," he said.

The Associated Press
May 13, 1988, Friday, PM cycle
Siberian Tiger Breaks Through Glass Window, Kills Zookeeper

A 450-pound Siberian tiger that smashed through a reinforced window at the Houston Zoo and killed a zookeeper poses no threat to visitors and won't be destroyed, officials say.

"We can contain that cat," zoo director John Werler said Thursday following zookeeper Ricardo Tovar's death, the first of its kind at the zoo.

The big cat apparently broke through a 2 1/2 -foot-square, quarter-inch-thick glass-and-wire mesh window in a door, then dragged Tovar, 59, into its natural habitat area and mauled him to death, Werler said. Tovar, a 10-year zoo employee, had apparently been peering through the window from a hallway. There were no witnesses to the attack, and it was unclear how long it had gone undiscovered. Tovar's shift began at 6 a.m.

John Gilbert, senior zookeeper of cats, said he realized that something was wrong around 7:45 a.m. when he called to Tovar "and the tiger reared up and put his face into the door." He radioed for help.

A response team headed by Curator of Exhibits Tom Dieckow arrived five minutes later.

Dieckow said he fired a shot from his rifle, which made the animal drop Tovar. He fired two more shots in an effort to scare the 11-year-old cat away from the zookeeper's body.

Workers were finally able to force the animal back into its cage with a fire extinguisher, Dieckow said.

"It cut him (Tovar) up and ate him up pretty good," Fire Department paramedic Howard Shaw said, adding that much of Tovar's left arm was torn away. "He had numerous bites about him and possibly a broken neck."

The tiger, named Miguel, will not be destroyed because it is a member of an endangered species, Werler said.

Werler said the animal is aggressive. "It snarls and growls and we have some cats that have neither of those dispositions," he said.

Tovar had been in charge of large cats since 1985.

"He was very competent. He knew his job," said Nelson Herwig, a friend of Tovar and curator of the zoo aquarium for 10 years.

The tiger display, which houses two other Siberian tigers, was closed to the public Thursday.

Visitors, including hundreds of school children, were delayed entrance into the zoo by 30 minutes.

"Lots of parents have been calling, saying their children are at the zoo with their school and want to make sure everything is all right," said Cathy Kuntz, a zoo secretary.

Werler said the tiger posed no threat to the public because it would have to get through three doors to reach visitors.

The Siberian tiger is the largest of eight kinds of tigers. It can measure up to 13 feet and weigh as much as 720 pounds.

Associated Press
Judge: Lion Owner's Sentence Should Be Warning To Public
By DAVID SEDENO, Associated Press Writer

Stiff requirements tacked onto a probation sentence for a man whose lion mauled a young girl should warn the public that wild animals must be kept away from humans, a judge says.

State District Judge Ted Poe on Wednesday ordered Gary Durkovitz, 35, of Houston, to serve a 30-day jail sentence, to get rid of all his exotic animals and to stay away from children.

The judge also ordered Durkovitz to do 20 hours community service work each month with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and said he would have to approve any of Durkovitz's future jobs. That was in additition to the 10 years probation and $5,000 fine set by a jury Wednesday. Last week, the same jury found Durkovitz guilty of injury to a child.

A lion owned by Durkovitz attacked 8-year-old Roxanne Hernandez at the Texas Flea Market in Houston last Oct. 10, biting off part of her skull and exposing the child's brain.

She has undergone reconstructive surgery and will have to have more operations. The girl's mother, Sonia Hernandez, testified that the girl has to wear a wig or cap in public and has trouble concentrating.

Since the attack, Durkovitz has been jailed on two charges of indecency with a child and one of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The cases, which are pending, stem from his allegedly using the lion and other exotic animals to attract boys, prosecutors said.

Defense attorney Robert Scardino said he was not surprised by the probation restrictions, but said he would appeal the guilty verdict.

"I don't think it was a crime. I didn't at the time. I don't now and I never will, and I never will let this case go," Scardino said. "I think we've got a good chance to reverse it and try it again.

"He could get 10 years in the penitentiary if he is retried, but we are willing to take that risk," Scardino said.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Alice Brown had asked the jury for the maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine, but said she was not disappointed in the punishment.

"It's just incredible to me that only one child got hurt and I hope that if it turns any lesson it's that you're not supposed to have these types of wild animals in the city," she said.

Durkovitz, who testified that he had taken every safety measure to prevent an attack, still faces a civil lawsuit in the case.