It's ‘Not The Tiger's Fault'
Zoo Owners Say Bitten Worker Admits Error; PETA Asks Probe
By Tom Mitchell - 11/20/2008
LURAY - Four days after a tiger at a local zoo bit a teenage employee, owners of the zoo called the girl's decision to touch the tiger "a mistake," adding that the victim holds the tiger blameless in the attack.
"She wants everybody to know that [the biting was] not the tiger's fault," said Jennifer Westhoff, co-owner of Luray Zoo.
The attack, in which a 5-year-old, 225-pound female Bengal tiger named "Star" bit off the finger of a 15-year-old female employee, occurred on Sunday. The victim, whose name has not been released because she is a minor, was showing the tiger to visitors at the zoo when she was bitten, said Westhoff.
Mark Kilby, the facility's other owner, said he and Westhoff have discouraged employees from handling the zoo's animals because of the danger inherent in touching or petting wild creatures. The incident, said Kilby, will force him and Westhoff to be take a harder line in enforcing that policy.
"We've repeatedly told our employees not to try to handle the animals," said Kilby. "I'm not going to be nice about it anymore."
PETA Asks For Probe
Also on Wednesday, a national animal-rights organization called for an investigation into the incident.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked the USDA to look into the attack and to "strictly enforce the Animal Welfare Act."
The zoo's owners say they would welcome any such investigation.
"PETA is investigating us," said Westhoff. "We don't have any plans to hide. We're very proud of the work we've done."
PETA also has written to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry about the incident.
Quoting regulations as to the employment of teenagers, PETA stated that teens under 18 may not work in any "occupation that exposes them to a recognized hazard capable of causing serious physical injury or death."
The Luray Zoo has frequently employed people as young as 14, said Kilby. He noted that Virginia law allows minors under the age of 16 to work certain jobs as long as they have permits to do so issued by the school system they attend.
"They want to look for fault [and] I'm sorry they're going after that," Kilby said of PETA's criticism on the issue regarding the employee's age. "We [and PETA] are on the same team. But I'm disappointed in their actions."
The mishap occurred when the girl tried to scratch a side of the tiger's face with her left hand, said Westhoff. The girl, who according to Westhoff is a Page County resident, had worked at the zoo for a year and a half.
According to Westhoff, the tiger playfully seized the girl's hand. When a woman tried to pull the hand free, the animal refused to release it and bit the girl's hand, severing her left "pinky" finger.
Touching Tiger A ‘Mistake'
The injured girl came by the zoo Wednesday after being treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center, where she was taken on Sunday. The girl hopes to return to work at the zoo, where several of her family members have worked, said Kilby.
Officials for the Virginia Department of Health, which is investigating the incident, had discussed the possibility of euthanizing the tiger to determine if it had rabies, but Kilby said that won't be necessary because the victim is receiving rabies shots as a preventive measure.
No Plans to Close
Kilby declined to discuss whether the zoo carries insurance for such attacks. He said there are no plans to close the zoo, nor has there been any indication that the USDA, which licenses the facility, intends to do so. The zoo, which is open seven days a week in the spring and summer months and on weekends from November through mid-April, will be open this weekend, Kilby said.
"We can't sit down and feel sorry for ourselves," said Kilby. "We've got to keep going."
Sunday's incident was the first such emergency in the zoo's 25-year history, Westhoff said. Westhoff, 39, and Kilby, 53, have run the zoo for the past 12 years since buying it from the previous owners.
Luray Zoo houses 250 animals, mostly reptiles, said Kilby. Besides the tiger, the zoo's 37 mammals include five other breeds of what Kilby terms "big cats" - two lynxes, one serval and one bobcat.
An official with the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn., says incidents like the one at Luray are preventable. Ron Hylton, director of conservations at the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator for the zoo's species survival plan for tigers, said tiger attacks occur "repeatedly" at privately owned zoos.
"A tiger is a wild animal, and there are just moments when the hard-wiring in their circuitry just fires off," said Hylton. "We always tell people in zoos, ‘You manage your tigers exclusively with a hands-off approach.' But the message doesn't get to some folks."