By Felisa Cardona and Katy Human
Denver Post Staff Writers
Article Last Updated:02/27/2007 01:36:03 AM MST
The locks, doors and gates to the Denver Zoo’s jaguar exhibit did not malfunction and were not broken when a zookeeper was mauled to death, zoo officials said Monday.
Four investigations are looking into how Jorge the jaguar was able to attack Ashlee Germaine Pfaff, including probes by the Denver Police Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Zoo officials have not determined why the door separating Pfaff, 28, from the jaguar was unlocked or who opened it, but they said Pfaff was alone all day in the service area where she was mauled.
Investigators do not know if Pfaff walked into the exhibit where Jorge lived – which would be against zoo safety policy – or if the 140-pound cat somehow opened the unlocked door.
“We don’t know if she was going in (to the exhibit), and we never will,” said zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie. “Why that door was open and what she was doing at that moment, we will never know.”
Jaguars are solitary and powerful hunters that are protective of their territory, biologists said.
“Invariably, when a keeper walks in with a big cat, it attacks. If you throw a cardboard box in there, it attacks,” said Kathy Carlstead, a research scientist at the Honolulu Zoo and expert in animal stress. “It’s a completely natural response, I’m afraid. When somebody forgets – if they don’t check the lock, if they go in – there’s nothing you can do.”
Earlier this month in Belgium, a woman who stayed after hours at a zoo to visit the cheetahs was found dead in the enclosure.
In 2000, a tour guide lost her arm to a Siberian tiger at the Prairie Wind Wild Animal Refuge in Agate, after sticking her arm into the cage to show the tiger was tame.
In 1999, a leopard at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs attacked and injured a 6-year-old boy who ventured to the edge of the cat’s cage. Two months ago, a 350-pound tiger reached through its cage at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled its trainer during a feeding.
Stacey Johnson, director of the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville, Pa., said stress was probably not a factor in Saturday’s attack. The Denver Zoo’s habitat was appropriate for Jorge, he said.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums inspects U.S. zoos every five years, and the Denver Zoo is “an accredited member in good standing,” said spokesman Steve Feldman.
The Denver Zoo also passed a USDA animal welfare inspection last fall, said Craig Piper, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Denver Zoo.
Pfaff was able to see where Jorge was from the service area where she was working, and she was aware of the zoo’s mantra, “Know where your animals are,” he said.
The zoo is considering the installation of alarms on unlocked doors as well as having more than one zookeeper working in the service area.
“We are going to do everything we can to get to the bottom of what happened,” Piper said
Pfaff participated in safety training specific to the feline building where she worked. For three months, Pfaff shadowed veteran keepers, officials said.
“She was dedicated to this institution; she was dedicated to her animals; and she was a great colleague and a professional,” Bowie said.
The zoo also has concluded that the emergency-response team that fatally shot Jorge followed the appropriate protocol in an attempt to save Pfaff’s life.
Pfaff, a 2002 New Mexico State University biology graduate, worked with tigers, otters and birds for two to three years at the former Ocean Journey downtown before she began working at the Denver Zoo in 2005.
She is survived by her parents, Norman and Janice Pfaff, her brothers, Bryon Pfaff and Aaron Pfaff, and her grandparents, Charlotte Pfaff, and Gene and Helen Barrington.
“Ashlee was a beautiful person, and was loved by many,” the family said in a written statement. “The family, obviously, wants to know what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. The family is confident at this time that the investigations by the police department and the zoo into those matters will answer those questions.”
There will be a memorial service at 7 tonight at Highlands Lutheran Church, 3995 Irving St., in Denver. An Albuquerque service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Shepherd of the Valley Presbyterian Church, 1801 Montaño Road NW.
In lieu of flowers. Pfaff’s family requested a donation be made to the Animal Humane Association.
Staff writer Felisa Cardona can be reached at 303-954-1219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Behind the names
The Bolivian-born jaguar named Jorge that killed a Denver zookeeper was named after President Bush, and he had a twin brother named Osama bin Laden.
Margot Ugarteche, a veterinarian at the Santa Cruz Municipal Zoo of South American Fauna in Bolivia, which sent Jorge to the Denver Zoo, told The Associated Press that Osama was the meaner and more dominant of the two.
But Stacey Johnson, director of the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville, Pa., who traveled to Bolivia in 2005 to escort Jorge and three other jaguars to U.S. zoos for a national captive breeding program, said that neither Jorge or Osama was especially violent.
Both were “amazingly well-cared for, in very good psychological shape,” he said.