Tiger was born in Denver
By Alan Gathright
Originally published 09:33 a.m., December 26, 2007
Updated 06:05 p.m., December 26, 2007
The tiger that killed a teenage boy and mauled his buddies during a horrifying Christmas Day escape at the San Francisco Zoo came from Denver.
The 350-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana was born at the Denver Zoo in June 2003 and was donated in December 2005 to the San Francisco Zoo, where officials hoped to breed her.
Today, San Francisco investigators are trying to determine how the big cat escaped its outdoor grotto, which is surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat and a 20-foot-high wall.
At a morning news conference, San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong said investigators are treating the tiger enclosure as a crime scene "to determine if there was human involvement in the tiger getting out or if the tiger was able to get out on its own."
The dead victim was identified today as 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr., of San Jose, Calif., according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Police are looking into whether the victims broached the enclosure in any way or approached the tiger, the Chronicle reported, citing sources close to the investigation.
They are also trying to figure out whether the animal grabbed the deceased victim or used the teenager to pull herself out of the grotto, sources told the newspaper.
Police officers responding to the chaotic scene shot the big cat dead after they found it mauling one of the surviving victims.
The zoo does not have video cameras, so police will attempt to piece together what happened with physical evidence and witness accounts, Fong said.
Denver Zoo officials today expressed support for their San Francisco colleagues and the victims.
"All of us here at Denver Zoo are deeply saddened to hear about what happened at the San Francisco Zoo," Denver officials said in a statement. "We offer our sympathy to everyone involved in this tragedy."
Denver officials also stressed confidence in the security of their zoo's 43-year-old feline exhibit, which houses three tigers behind a moat that is 25-feet wide and 18-feet deep. The trio of Siberian or Amur tigers includes Tatiana's parents and her brother, Waldemere.
"At Denver Zoo, we have housed tigers safely without incident in the feline exhibit for more than 40 years," the statement said. "We are confident that this enclosure is safe."
Last February, a 140-pound jaguar named Jorge killed a zookeeper at the Denver Zoo before being fatally shot.
Zoo officials said later that the zookeeper had violated rules by opening the door to the animal's cage.
Denver Zoo officials would not "speculate" on the San Francisco attacks.
Officials said the Denver Zoo undergoes mandatory safety and emergency standards inspections as part of its accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"Should any new information regarding tiger enclosures come to light, Denver Zoo, like other accredited zoos, would work closely with the AZA to see if any modifications are necessary," the statement said.
"Zoos are evolving places and if anything were to be learned that led us to believe that we needed to look at doing some modifications ... we would certainly do that," Denver Zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie said today.
Jack Hanna, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, predicted that other U.S. zoos would reassess their tiger enclosures if it turns out the big cat was able to leap out.
"This is a first in this country," Hanna told The Associated Press today. "I've never heard of an individual (zoo visitor) being killed by an animal. It's much safer going to a zoo than getting in your car and going down the driveway."
San Francisco Zoo officials were still uncertain how long Tatiana, who mauled a zookeeper during a public feeding demonstration just before Christmas last year, was loose before police shot her dead.
Tatiana was one of three cubs delivered by a tiger named Katarina in Denver. Even as a cub she was noted for her "quick-tempered" personality, compared to her more mellow siblings, according to a feature story at the time.
Yet, Bowie stressed today, "We did not have any incidents with Tatiana," referring to aggression toward staff.
The three young men who were attacked while visiting the San Francisco Zoo suffered "pretty aggressive bite marks," police spokesman Steve Mannina said.
The zoo is closed today.
The two injured men, ages 19 and 23, were upgraded to stable condition today at San Francisco General Hospital after surgery to clean and close their wounds, said surgeon Rochelle Dicker. They suffered deep bites and claw cuts on their heads, necks, arms and hands.
Dicker said they were shaken up emotionally and would remain hospitalized for the day, but that because of their youth they would make a full recovery.
The San Francisco Zoo's director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, could not explain how Tatiana escaped. He said the big cat did not leave through an open door, raising the possibility that the powerful animal leaped out of its exhibit.
"There was no way out through the door," Jenkins said. "The animal appears to have climbed or otherwise leaped out of the enclosure."
The first attack happened right outside the Siberian's enclosure the victim died at the scene. A group of four officers came across his body when they entered the dark zoo grounds, Mannina said.
The second victim was about 300 yards away, in front of the Terrace Cafe. The man was sitting on the ground, blood running from gashes in his head and Tatiana sitting next to him.
The cat attacked the man again, Mannina said.
When the officers shouted to distract the tiger, it began approaching police, Fong said.
Several officers then opened fire with handguns, killing the animal.
Only then did they see the third victim, who had also been mauled.
Although no new visitors were let in after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the grounds had not been scheduled to close until an hour later, and 20 to 25 people were still in the zoo when the attacks happened, zoo officials said. Employees and visitors were told to take shelter when zoo officials learned of the attacks.
"This is a tragic event for San Francisco," Fire Department spokesman Lt. Ken Smith said. "We pride ourselves in our zoo, and we pride ourselves in tourists coming and looking at our city."
There are five tigers at the zoo three Sumatrans and two Siberians. Officials initially worried that four tigers had escaped, but soon learned only Tatiana had escaped, Mannina said.
The Christmas escape eerily echoed a Dec. 22, 2006, mauling at San Francisco's Lion House when Tatiana chewed off part of a zookeeper's arm after the public feeding as about 50 horrified visitors looked on.
State investigators found that Lori Komejan was attacked after she reached through a drain trough to retrieve an item near the tiger's side of the cage, according to the Chronicle. The tiger reached under the cage bars and grabbed her right arm, but the zookeeper tried to push the tiger away using her other arm, the state report found.
Both of her arms were under the cage at that point and her face was pressed against the cage bars, according to the report. Another employee grabbed a long-handled squeegee and hit the tiger in the head until it released the injured zookeeper.
"The tiger ate her hand. It slowly proceeded to eat the rest of her arm," Vikram Chari told the Chronicle, recounting the spectacle that he and his 6-year-old son witnessed.
California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health blamed the zoo for the assault and imposed a $18,000 penalty. A medical claim filed against the city by the keeper was denied.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said in a statement he was deeply saddened by the latest attack and that a thorough investigation was under way.
After last year's attack, the zoo added customized steel mesh over the bars, built in a feeding shoot and increased the distance between the public and the cats.
Siberian tigers are classified as endangered and there are more than 600 of the animals living in captivity worldwide.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© Rocky Mountain News
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