by Abby Wuellner, KY3 News
Story Published: Aug 5, 2008 at 3:43 PM CDT
Story Updated: Aug 5, 2008 at 7:02 PM CDT
By Gene Hartley
To read a statement from the park on Tuesday, click here.
To hear the 911 tape, click here.
BRANSON WEST, Mo. — Investigators from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture were at the Branson Interactive Zoo and Aquarium on Tuesday. They’re investigating what the Stone County sheriff says was a tiger attack on a teenager on Monday afternoon.
The victim, Dakoda Ramel, 16, remained in critical condition on Tuesday afternoon at a hospital in Springfield. Employees at the animal park, which used to be called Predator World, spoke out about the case and said they’ve learned more about what happened from witnesses.
A Stone County 911 emergency center tape reveals the sense of panic at the park in the moments after the accident took place.
“What’s going on?” a call-taker asked.
“We have a tiger attack and a bad one!” said a caller.
In the hectic moments after a tiger bit Dakoda’s leg, neck and face, no one could tell exactly what happened.
“He’s not bleeding. He’s just, just deep, deep lacerations,” said the caller. “He is not conscious that we can tell.”
Later, someone at the park said he was breathing.
“Yeah, he’s breathing lightly, yeah, shallow breathing,” the caller said.
The owner of Branson interactive Zoo and Aquarium, Breck Wakefield, hasn’t consented to an interview. He said in a news release on Tuesday that an eyewitness account is helping the staff put the pieces together.
“He entered the enclosure on his own to take pictures for a customer,” Sharon Sargent, a biologist at the animal park, said in an interview outside the park office on Tuesday. “The only people who saw it stated he fell and the cats had not attacked.”
That’s the point at which the tiger approached, Wakefield’s news release says, after the fall knocked the teen unconscious. After that, the news release says, “a female tiger approached, grabbed him by the neck and dragged him to what she would have felt was safety . . . Contrary to reports, she was not holding him in water but was rather holding his head above water by his neck. Dakoda never moved or made a sound.
“While there is no doubt being dragged by a 300-pound animal with 2-inch canines contributed to his injuries greatly, thee is also no doubt he would have not survived an aggressive attack involving his neck. Also, only one cat was ever involved.”
Shortly thereafter, staff members used carbon dioxide canisters to ward off the animals and remove the boy.
“We have two puncture wounds on the neck, one big one on the leg, a big gash on the leg. It’s not bleeding from the leg. His neck is bleeding,” a caller says on the 911 tape.
That’s the condition in which he was airlifted to Springfield, where he remains in critical condition.
“At this time, we believe this to have been a tragic accident,” said Sargent.
What exactly led up to the accident remains unclear. In a news release on Tuesday, the park said Dakoda was violating the park’s policy by being in the tiger cage.
Those who saw it say Dakoda went into the pen to take a picture for a tourist. Why he did it will remain the unknown until Dakoda can speak for himself.
“Once he can talk to us, if he was doing something wrong, he’ll admit it,” said Sargent.
The other detail that remains unclear to some is whether this tiger actually “attacked.” Wakefield’s news release says Dakoda was an intern at the park. Sargent said he’s been around these animals since they were a couple days old.
Wakefield’s news release says the people at the park don’t think the tiger was trying to attack; if that had been the case, the tiger would have killed him. That contradicts the person who called 911 and told the call-taker that the tigers were attacking Dakoda.
The staff isn’t doing anything to isolate the tigers from visitors. They say this was an incident that happened in a tiger pen, and they don’t believe anyone is at risk, provided protocol is being followed.
Wakefield’s news release says the park closed immediately after the attack and the staff asked visitors to leave before going to the hospital in Springfield. That contradicts interviews that a reporter did with visitors on Monday who said they weren’t asked to leave. Sheriff Richard Hill also said the park remained open except for the tiger exhibit.
The news release praised other staff members for moving quickly to help Dakoda and keep the tigers away from him by “acting bravely and without regard for themselves, not being sure if this was a full attack or not.”
The park says it was a “tragic accident and we are not considering at this time to put down the cats as Dakoda’s family has made it clear this is not what he would have wanted.”
Also Tuesday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote a letter to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to ask for an investigation of the incident and the revocation of Branson Interactive Zoo and Aquarium’s license to keep wild animals. The letter to the USDA came from PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Va.
PETA said the park, formerly known as Predator World, has a history of “dangerous incidents.” It said a black leopard bit an 18-year-old volunteer on the arm on Nov. 20, 2004; two wolves escaped on Feb. 15, 2007, with after which one was shot and killed after being free for two months and the other was never found; and escapes of a fox and a grizzly bear. PETA said Predator World was fined $2,000 in 2003.