Zoo death raises safety concerns
Handler killed by jaguar may have let down her guard amid heavy workload
By Felisa Cardona and Karen Rouse
Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated:02/26/2007 12:06:23 AM MST
The zookeeper who was fatally attacked by a 140-pound jaguar at the Denver Zoo on Saturday was a 27-year-old woman from New Mexico.
Ashlee Pfaff, who was described as an experienced handler, died from injuries to her neck, spinal column and spinal cord, according to the Denver medical examiner’s office.
“She was grabbed or bitten around the neck,” said Amy Martin, a forensic pathologist. “She had very severe, really unsurvivable injuries.”
Pfaff, who specialized in carnivores, was attacked by the male cat Saturday in the Feline Building. Other Denver Zoo staff attempted to help during the attack, even trying to use a fire extinguisher to stave off the animal, according to a press statement from zoo officials.
When the jaguar approached, it was shot and killed, the statement said. Pfaff was pronounced dead at about 1 p.m. Saturday at Denver Health Medical Center.
Her family, reached at their home in a suburb of Albuquerque, said Sunday they are making arrangements and would release a statement later.
Meanwhile, Denver police continued to investigate why the keeper was in the same enclosure as the cat because that is against zoo policy and training.
David Nickolaus, a former Denver Zoo zookeeper, said he briefly met Pfaff just before leaving his job in August 2005 for safety reasons. While there, he said, he was among several zookeepers who raised concerns that their heavy workloads compromised safety.
“They just have keepers running back and forth,” he said. “They’re not able to be as careful because they’re just under so much pressure.”
Denver Zoo did not return a call for comment on safety concerns.
“Dangerous exotic animals”
Ed Hansen, executive director of the Kansas-based American Association of Zoo keepers, offered condolences to Denver Zoo employees and Pfaff’s family, calling the tragedy “one too many.”
He said that among zookeepers, safety is the “No. 1 priority because you’re working with very, very dangerous animals.”
“There is this perception in the public’s eyes … that the animals (in a zoo) are tame,” Hansen said. “These are very wild, dangerous exotic animals.”
The accident is likely shaking up those who work in zoos, said Hansen.
“Zookeeping is a job of routines,” he said. “They have a tendency to do the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. There is a little bit of complacency involved sometimes.”
Such accidents are a reminder to make sure cages are locked properly, he said.
Nick Sculac, owner of Big Cats of Serenity Springs, an animal sanctuary in Calhan, said jaguars are unpredictable, and it’s becoming hard to find people willing to train them.
“They are just too dangerous,” he said. “They are high-strung, and they have no facial expressions, so you cannot tell when they are going to bite you.”
Sculac said he can’t imagine why the keeper went into the jaguar’s enclosure unless the door lock between the employee and the cat malfunctioned.
He also has questioned why other zoo employees went into the enclosure to save their co-worker without first placing the animal in a holding area.
“I guess they just tried to go in and get the zookeeper,” he said.
Zoo officials said employees followed protocol when they went into the cat’s enclosure with weapons. They wouldn’t comment further on the investigation.
Sculac described jaguars and leopards as the “pit bulls of cats” because of their strong jaws and unpredictable nature.
“They will take a gazelle up into the trees with them,” Sculac said. “That is how powerful they are.”
Ana Bowie, spokeswoman for the Denver Zoo, said the feline building remained closed Sunday while other parts of the zoo were open.
Denver police are investigating the zookeeper’s death, but it’s possible that the U.S. Department of Agriculture – charged with licensing zoos and conducting animal inspections – could send investigators to the zoo, Bowie said.
Staff writer Felisa Cardona can be reached at 303-954-1219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Karen Rouse can be reached at 303-954-1684 or email@example.com.