Michael Taylor and Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writers
Saturday, December 23, 2006
A 350-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana attacked her keeper at the San Francisco Zoo during feeding time Friday afternoon as dozens of visitors looked on, causing deep lacerations to the keeper's arms.
The keeper, who zoo officials refused to name but sources identified as Lori Komejan, was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where she underwent surgery for the cuts.
She was "alert and conscious" when she was taken by ambulance to the hospital, said Robert Jenkins, the zoo's director of animal care and conservation. A talented artist who likes to draw animals, she has been employed by the zoo since 1997.
One or two staffers who were in the lion house when the attack happened at 2:22 p.m. grabbed Komejan and pulled her away from the tiger.
"I credit them with ensuring that the wounds weren't greater than they were," Jenkins said.
He said he did not know what led to the attack. Security officers interviewed several visitors who saw the incident.
"We don't know if there was any intent (to harm) on the tiger's part," Jenkins said.
He said it is not clear what will happen to Tatiana, but that it is "not normal procedure" to euthanize a big animal for this kind of behavior. The 3 1/2-year-old tiger arrived in San Francisco from the Denver Zoo on December 16, 2005. Jenkins said she has no history of aggression toward humans.
Komejan was attacked after the feeding of the four lions and three tigers that live in the lion house, Jenkins said. He called the session a "favorite attraction" for zoo visitors.
Patrons watch the feeding from behind a barrier that is about 4 feet from the cages. Between the barrier and the animals' cages is a kind of no-man's land where the zoo's employees are allowed.
Around 2 p.m., the keeper put Tatiana's specialized meat meal -- based on horsemeat and weighing 3 to 5 pounds -- in the steel food door near the bottom of Tatiana's cage.
Once the keeper puts the meat in the device, the door on the keeper's side closes, and another on the tiger's side opens. That way, there is no danger of the big cat touching the keeper.
All went well during the feeding, Jenkins said. However, a few minutes after Tatiana was fed, she somehow managed to get her paws on Komejan's forearms. It's not clear whether Tatiana thrust her paws through the bars, which are a few inches apart, or whether the feeder's hands were close enough to the bars for Tatiana to grab them.
Tyler Bridges and his 4-year-old daughter, Luciana, were in the lion house when the attack occurred. They had just finished chatting with the keeper and were walking away.
"She had just said, 'We feed them rabbits every Tuesday and Friday.' Fifteen seconds later, I hear her screaming," said Bridges, 46. "I see her with her back to us, facing the cage. Both of her hands were in front of her. Then somebody tried to pull her away from the tiger. I was about 15 to 20 feet away.
"I picked up my daughter -- she was very traumatized. Some visitors were running out, zoo workers were running in. While we were heading out, I could still hear her screaming."
Bridges, the Miami Herald's bureau chief in Lima, Peru, said it was his daughter's first visit to the San Francisco Zoo. Although the family lives in Peru, they are spending Christmas with his mother in Palo Alto.
Tatiana, who was born in Denver on June 27, 2003, was brought to San Francisco as a companion for Tony, a 14-year-old Siberian tiger whose sibling and lifelong companion, Emily, died in late 2004 from cancer of the spleen.
Although they were standoffish at first, Tony and Tatiana started having physical contact without barriers in February, graduating to bouts of torrid sex.
Jenkins said the tiger attack was "the only injury of its kind that has happened at this zoo."
However, employees have been attacked over the years by various animals, including gorillas, elephants and kangaroos. In May 1987, then-keeper Jane Tollini was mauled by a leopard named Farrah. And in February 2001, bird specialist Peter Shannon was assaulted by a cassowary that tore into his legs with its claws.