Big cats return to public view in renovated San Francisco Zoo grottoes

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Big cats return to public view in renovated San Francisco Zoo grottoes


By Linda Goldston
Mercury News
Article Launched: 02/22/2008 01:31:27 AM PST

Three-year-old Ryan Drivon stood up in his stroller and tried to get his mother’s attention. “Mom, look at the little tiger,” he said.

“That’s a lion, buddy,” Beth Drivon of Redwood City said with a smile. “He’s beautiful.”

It was back to normal Thursday morning outside the big-cat grotto at the San Francisco Zoo, where parents and children greeted their old friends for the first time since a Christmas Day tiger attack left a San Jose teenager dead. Drivon and Ryan were the first members of the public to see the lions and tigers at the zoo’s newly renovated outdoor grottoes. The big cats had been kept inside since Tatiana the tiger somehow escaped and attacked the teen and two of his friends.

Fans of Tony the tiger, Tatiana’s former companion, Kimani the lion and all the others had counted the days until they could visit them in their outdoor playgrounds again. A heavy downpour for much of the day kept the number of visitors to a few at a time – there were 220 throughout the day. Many seemed to approve of the changes.

“I never felt myself or my kids were in danger,” Drivon said. “I always felt safe here, but I think what they’ve done is great. More zoos should take the precautions.”

It is still unknown how Tatiana got out of one of the grottoes before police shot her dead. Two days after the Christmas attack, the zoo announced the front wall around Tatiana’s enclosure was 4 feet lower than industry standards. Attorneys for Carlos Sousa Jr., who was killed in the attack, and brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal, who were injured, blame the zoo; the zoo contends the three friends provoked the tiger. Police suspended their investigation without any charges, and no lawsuits have been filed.

To prevent an escape of a big cat in the future, the zoo extended the concrete moat walls of the grottoes 4 feet to meet the national guidelines of 16 feet, 4 inches. A glass wall and fencing was placed on top of that to extend the barriers to 19 feet, and hot wires run along the moat wall.

“That will make sure they don’t even think about getting out,” said Bob Jenkins, director of animal care and conservation at the zoo.

Other changes were made as well but the biggest difference for the public: glass walls, where there had been a railing. But no one seemed to mind it.

“You can see very well,” said Cecilia Boyer, who runs a day care center near the zoo and brought three of her young charges for a visit Thursday. “It was dangerous before, especially for the kids, who like to climb.”

Boyer called out the animals’ names for the children as she moved from grotto to grotto, pushing 2-year-old Francesca in a plastic-covered stroller for the rain.

“Look, here’s Tony” the tiger, Boyer said to the children.

“We love the tigers,” the little boy with her said.

All morning, the big cats performed as if on cue, oblivious to the rain smacking the pavement, splashing onto the new glass walls of their grottoes.

Five-year-old Jahari, an African lion with a striking mane, sat perched on the edge of a ledge in his grotto, while his mate, Amanzi, sat underneath a concrete overhang near the door to the grotto, away from the rain. Tony the tiger let out some roars at mid-morning, with Jahari joining in. Zoo officials hope to have a new companion for 16-year-old Tony soon. He’s past breeding age but loved to touch noses and cuddle with Tatiana.

George the tiger was the spunkiest. He splashed in his pool, threw a crumpled paper bag into the air and then raced around the shrubbery like a house cat streaking down the hall.

The big cats have come through the tragedy so well the zoo has decided to resume letting the public watch its eight lions and tigers have their afternoon meal. That begins at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Several visitors mentioned Tatiana on Thursday, though no one thinks she will be forgotten. Parts of a memorial to her are still on display in the zoological society’s membership office.

“I’m sorry,” someone named Jesse wrote in a note, “and I’ll be thinking of you.”

Someone else left a bag of feline Greenie treats and a card signed by Emma and Jack attached to a black and white striped teddy bear.

“Tatiana, we will miss you,” it said, with XXOO’s at the end. Hugs and kisses.

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