David S. Miller, MS, DVM
Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Discussions of attacks by captive wildlife on keepers and other zoo personnel are often limited. This is understandable, given the emotional impact of such events, potential political repercussions from supervisors and co-workers who learn of such discussions, and the complexity of legal actions. Nevertheless, development of strategies for minimizing the occurrence and improved responses to such events requires discussion of animal attacks. The intent of this presentation is to provide one perspective on one attack by a tiger (Panthera tigris) on a keeper that occurred at the author’s previous place of employment. The goal is to provide information for consideration and derive general messages that can be applied to prevent crises in other situations. It is important to recognize that the perspective offered and the responses to this event were not necessarily the only perspectives or the optimal responses.
Prelude: The Stage is Set
Injuries and death due to attacks by captive wildlife on people are always possible if dangerous wildlife are kept in captivity, and human error is always a potential factor contributing to such attacks. A few of the issues that have precipitated attacks and similar crises at various institutions in the past include the following.
Facility Design Flaws
Facility design flaws do not appear to be a factor in this attack. However, design flaws have been recognized in other facilities where attacks have occurred. The failure of such concerns to be addressed during the design phase of these facilities can be attributed, in part, to failure to establish a cooperative, inclusive work culture.
Keeper Training and Compliance with Policies
Appropriate training and daily work policies should be the starting point for prevention of an attack. A number of policies and standards of practice were in place at the facility when the tiger attack occurred. Keepers were not authorized to work without a supervisor present until they had demonstrated an appropriate level of proficiency and were following the policies for the area. A policy of note was that keepers were not required to work with the tiger if they did not feel that they could handle it on a given day, with no questions asked. Similarly, a supervisor could relieve a keeper of their tiger responsibilities with no questions asked. The inside tiger holding area consisted of a keeper work area with two tiger cages on either side, and a squeeze cage connecting the two sides. This resulted in a “C” shaped arrangement of connected cages, and keepers were expected to always keep at least two locked doors between themselves and the tigers while they were working in tiger cages. Keepers were also expected to work alone after their training period, with the intention of preventing situations where a failure to communicate would permit one keeper to accidentally open a door that would allow a tiger direct access to another keeper. Keepers were required to carry a pepper spray product (Counter Assault, Kalispell, MT) when entering keeper work areas or holding areas for the tigers. Adherence to standard daily policies would have prevented this tiger attack.
Dangerous Animal Escape Protocol Developed and In Place
It is recognized that even strict adherence to daily policies will not prevent all crisis situations with potentially dangerous captive wildlife. Therefore, zoologic institutions develop plans for escapes and other crises. Such plans should be developed with the input of all relevant personnel, including animal care staff, supervisors, maintenance and facility personnel, and top administration. Once a plan is in place, regular training and practice is required to facilitate the institution’s response to a crisis. For dangerous wildlife such as tigers, appropriate response team selection and training for rifle certification and darting is essential. Attention to adequate insurance and liability coverage for the staff is prudent. It is important to communicate such plans to local law enforcement personnel so that response efforts can be coordinated effectively during a crisis. In addition, establishing a good working relationship with the media in advance of a crisis is highly desirable. Deficiencies in the above can undercut an institution’s response to a crisis and had variable impacts for dealing with the tiger attack in this instance.
All individuals of a potentially dangerous species should be considered a risk to human health and not be under-estimated. It must be recognized that an individual animal has opportunities to contemplate escape and attack opportunities on a full-time basis. In contrast, staff attention is divided among other animals and responsibilities in a professional setting. Attention is also devoted to personal responsibilities and concerns. Consequently, the opportunity for a dangerous animal to capitalize on staff mistakes exists. The individual tiger in this attack was perceived by staff to have an aggressive nature. In this instance, human error coupled with an aggressive animal led to an attack that could have had a fatal outcome.
Common issues of concern for many zoologic institutions include interpersonal conflict, effective and appropriate communication, and staff morale. Interpersonal conflict and dissension among staff in the section of the zoo where the tiger attack occurred was a problem, in general. Conflict between the victim of the attack and a supervisor was a problem, in particular. Personality conflict, significant differences in opinion, and an inability to work together in a productive manner undoubtedly contributed to the occurrence of the attack by distracting employees and creating negative attitudes.
On the day of the accident, the keeper (victim) entered a tiger cage for routine cleaning, and no doors were in the closed and locked position between the tiger and the keeper. The tiger recognized this opportunity, traveled unimpeded between cages to the cage where the keeper was located, and attacked. A volunteer in a nearby office heard some unusual sounds and contacted another keeper. This keeper (the rescuer) entered the keeper work area and found the victim in a tiger cage sitting up with the tiger chewing on the victim’s shoulder. The rescuer told the victim to close her eyes, and then sprayed the tiger with pepper spray. The tiger reacted to the spray, released the victim, moved to another cage, and the rescuer pulled the victim out of the tiger holding area while closing two locks on the way out. An ambulance was subsequently called, the tiger area supervisor (Supervisor A) for the day arrived, and supervisors and keepers from other areas of the facility arrived to provide physical assistance and comfort the victim. One of the victim’s few memories of the incident was another keeper holding her hand and speaking with her.
At the time that the victim was being assaulted by the tiger, the veterinarian was off grounds speaking on the telephone with a supervisor (Supervisor B) in another area of the zoo. The veterinarian heard human vocalizations over the zoo’s radio in the background that were not recognized until later that evening as the victim vocalizing in an attempt to attract attention. Subsequently, the veterinarian heard the rescuer state in a distressed voice that “X was doing Y to Z and would not stop.” Supervisor B promptly stated that she had to hang up and depart. As the veterinarian was not certain what animal was doing what action to another animal or human, he telephoned an area of the zoo where he was certain that somebody would answer the telephone. The person answering the telephone was not capable of relaying information about the radio conversations that were concurrently heard by the veterinarian in the background. The veterinarian departed from home and arrived at the zoo approximately 15 minutes later. The media had already arrived, and the veterinarian parked along the street and ran toward where the media appeared to be congregating.
Upon arrival at the tiger facility, Supervisor A met the veterinarian. He explained that a tiger attack occurred, an ambulance had taken the victim to the hospital, the victim appeared to be stable, and that Supervisor B had been unable to load darts as per the established escape protocol for immobilizing escaped tigers. The curator was intent on having the tiger darted, as the local police were approaching him about shooting the tiger. The tiger was intermittently visible through a window in the keeper work area but was contained in the tiger holding area and not a threat to human safety. Therefore, it was possible at this time to address employee needs, such as ensuring that the rescuer was not left alone and received adequate medical care for irritation due to pepper spray.
The emotionally charged atmosphere around the tiger enclosure hampered discussion of the cause of the incident and the appropriate response. The tiger was contained and not an immediate threat to human safety. Therefore, it was possible for the veterinarian to request a meeting with the curator, and Supervisors A and B in a nearby room. During this time, one of the maintenance supervisors took the initiative to inform the police that the tiger was contained and that the police needed to leave zoo grounds. At that time, it was uncertain whether the attack occurred due to failure to lock doors, failure of the enclosure to contain the tiger, or other explanations. Due to this uncertainty and concern for human safety, the veterinarian and curator failed to agree on the need for immediate darting strategies. Due to the disagreement and the highly energized atmosphere, the veterinarian departed with the intent of bringing an air pistol and alternate darting system to the scene. This also gave the veterinarian the opportunity to ‘step back’ and reevaluate the situation. While outside of the building containing the tiger enclosure, the veterinarian observed the potential for the tiger to be shifted into an outside enclosure. Therefore, a plan was established with Supervisor A to shift the tiger outside and then close the shift door. Before this was done, radios were checked, and all participants had at least one spotter with a working radio to monitor for errors and hazards. The tiger was easily shifted outside and contained in the outside enclosure without the need to use chemical immobilization.
After the tiger was safely located in an outside pen, it was possible to examine the inside enclosure. At that time, it was possible to establish that enclosure failure had not occurred. Keepers were able to initiate normal closing procedures, and cleanup of the tiger area was delayed until the following day. The veterinarian was able to address emergency darting equipment needs at this point to ensure that it would be possible to respond to a subsequent emergency. The veterinarian conducted a visual examination of the tiger and established that the tiger did not suffer adverse effects from the pepper spray. The veterinarian was also able to initiate a review of the tiger’s medical records to determine rabies vaccination status and identify other potential concerns for the keeper’s health. A web-based search for literature on the microbial flora most likely to contaminate the keeper’s wounds and appropriate antibiotic prophylaxis was conducted. This was provided to the victim’s health care providers later that evening. Further discussion with the victim’s clinicians occurred over the next few days regarding the risk of rabies and other diseases. Within two hours of the attack the media had contacted the veterinarian by telephone and pager by systematically calling telephone numbers with the zoo’s prefix and hearing the contact information provided by the veterinarian’s voicemail message.
The day following the attack, a crisis counselor was brought in to assist staff that were involved in the incident. The inclusion of a crisis counselor in the institution’s crisis response was critical for addressing staff emotional needs. The facility’s USDA inspector subsequently discussed the incident with the tiger’s curator, keepers that were involved in the incident, and the facility’s director. Some discussion occurred about the incident among senior staff. The curator indicated several times after the attack that the veterinarian responded to the attack differently than the curator, but never elaborated on his feelings or opinions of the incident. The keeper is still disabled and has significant pain from her injuries.
A common theme to many attacks by captive wildlife in zoo and aquarium settings is the failure of the institution to resolve interpersonal conflict and work culture issues. This results in failure to communicate and resolve animal management and safety issues, including facility design and daily animal management concerns. Poor morale, decreased productivity, and carelessness can arise. Subsequently, human error may occur and provide the animal with an opportunity to attack or escape. Such an event can contribute to a worsening of the work culture and personal interactions. Thus, building consensus should be an important goal of zoo personnel management, and will prevent the occurrence of many crises. This may be accomplished with the assistance of management consultants (especially those specializing in work culture issues), regular staff meetings, staff retreats, and strategic planning where problems are identified and goals are set.
A significant challenge is the identification of appropriate disciplinary responses to violations of policy. This is a difficult issue to address, as the work culture and the personal response of the violator need to mesh for disciplinary actions to succeed. A particular challenge is how to address “close calls” and other violations that require self-reporting by employees.
As tragic as the tiger attack was, such crises are an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve institutional deficiencies and policies, as well as human safety and animal welfare issues. This incident indicates the value of having well-trained staff with good communication skills, stable personalities, an ability to think and respond quickly to novel events, and strong ethical standards, as many individuals rose to the occasion and provided appropriate responses to the animal crisis and the personal needs of the victim and the rescuer.
This incident illustrated the potential for conflicts in decision-making authority to arise. It is a challenge to completely address such issues in advance, as an individual’s ability to respond to a crisis can be difficult to anticipate. Some facilities address such issues by including flexibility in the decision-making process based on the personnel available and the particular circumstances at hand. Other institutions appear to have a more rigid hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is important to have a chain of command in place for any given situation, and that this be clear to all participants. In this instance, the veterinarian had control of decisions regarding the tiger by virtue of his expertise in the equipment and drugs required for chemical immobilization.
In the effort to glean lessons for future incidents from this event, it is important to remember that the safety of the responders was not compromised after the rescuer and victim left the tiger area. In part, this was a luxury provided by the fact that the tiger was safely contained in the tiger holding area. This provided an opportunity to establish spotters, verify that radios were working, and consider response options. This scenario will not be available in many instances. Although this was a novel situation that had not been practiced, it does not negate the value of regular drills, role-playing, and discussion for developing the traits needed to quickly assess and respond to novel circumstances. In this instance, the inability to successfully employ the dart system prevented the unnecessary darting of the tiger when it was in a contained situation, although the emergency response plan called for darting. However, this failure indicated a failure in the advance preparation for such events.
Dr. Wynona Shellabarger and Ashley Harvey offered comments that greatly improved this manuscript. Insights shared by many individuals in the zoo profession contributed to the perspectives presented.