Experts say taunting wasn't only factor in tiger attack
By LISA LEFF and TERENCE CHEA
Police believe the three zoo visitors who were mauled by a tiger yelled and waved at the cat from atop a railing before it lunged at them, but experts say that's only a notch up from the type of taunting animals regularly endure at the nation's zoos.
One study concluded that as many as one in four zoo visitors razz the animals in some way, and large predators like tigers are a prime target.
Paul Dhaliwal, one of the two surviving victims, told the father of the teenager killed in the Christmas Day attack that while the three climbed the 3-foot-tall railing and tried to get the tiger's attention, they never threw or dangled anything into the pen, according to a search warrant affidavit filed late Thursday.
Dhaliwal, 19, was severely injured when the 250-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana clawed its way up the wall of its enclosure, leapt out and mauled him. His brother, Kulbir, 24, was also injured, and their friend, 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr., was killed.
The tiger "may have been taunted/agitated by its eventual victims," Inspector Valerie Matthews wrote in the affidavit. Police believe "this factor contributed to the tiger escaping from its enclosure and attacking its victims," she wrote.
All three victims had marijuana in their systems, and Paul Dhaliwal's blood alcohol level was 0.16 - twice the legal limit for driving, according to the affidavit.
"Clearly there's the lesson to be learned here," said zoo spokesman Sam Singer. "The lesson is that it's not a good idea to drink, it's not a good idea to be high on dope, and it's not a good idea to taunt a man-eating tiger."
Authorities were weighing whether to seek criminal charges against the Dhaliwals, but their lawyer, Mark Geragos, said they have presented no evidence of a crime. Geragos, who has repeatedly said the brothers didn't taunt the tiger, also noted that the affidavit does not specify any possible counts.
"Basically, they're arguing that if you go to the zoo and wave at the animals, you get the death penalty," he said. "And that's just nonsense."
David Kestenbaum, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles who has followed the case, said investigators could be pursuing misdemeanor charges related to possessing marijuana, trespassing or giving alcohol to a minor.
But he does not believe the evidence police have revealed so far would support felony charges unless there is evidence the three young men conspired to get the animal out of its cage.
"I don't see a felony based on the facts that are public at this point," Kestenbaum said. "I think the combination of the marijuana, alcohol and youth made this a poor judgement call, but it's not something they foresaw the consequences of."
Some animal behaviorists said Friday that the visitors' alleged actions would not exonerate the zoo or its accrediting agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Zoo officials have acknowledged the wall surrounding the tiger's open air enclosure was four feet lower than recommended by the AZA. The same tiger, a female named Tatiana, ripped the flesh off a zookeeper's arm in December 2006. After that attack, the zoo revamped the bars enclosing the indoor cages where she and other big cats were kept.
"Taunting or not, I just think it's incumbent on the AZA and the zoos to have taunt-proof cages," said wildlife biologist Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "If you are going to have an animal like a Siberian tiger or other predators, you have to protect the public."
Bekoff said taunting is common at zoos. He said students in his animal behavior courses during the 1990s found that 20 to 25 percent of zoo visitors taunted the animals - especially predators such as lions and tigers - by mimicking, yelling, throwing things at them or otherwise aggravating them.
"This is not an isolated incident and the zoo is trying to wrangle itself out," he said. "The kids were not responsible for Tatiana being shipped around like a couch. The kids were not responsible for the enclosure being inadequate. The kids are responsible for the taunting."
Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also said taunting probably is not the sole reason for the attack.
"When something like this happens, what you find is it's almost never that there was one single thing that went wrong," said Zawistowski. "It's a cascade of things.
"The wall wasn't a height that was appropriate; there was an animal with a past history; there was nobody there to keep track of it; there were people there harassing it. When you click down that list and they all align, you end up with a tragedy," he said.
Zoos frequently have docents or keepers on hand to prevent animals from being harassed, but the San Francisco Zoo has refused to disclose how many employees were working when the attack occurred as the zoo was closing on Christmas Day.
The search warrant affidavit cites multiple reports to police of people taunting animals at the zoo that day. They included a report of a man and a woman throwing rocks at the lions about an hour before Tatiana escaped. Witnesses also told police they saw penguins and monkeys being harassed by groups of four or five male visitors.
After the attack, the zoo posted new signs asking visitors to be respectful of the animals.
For The Tiger
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