Horrified zoogoer recalls tiger attack
Keeper’s mauling a reminder wild animals can turn vicious at any time, experts say
-Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
“The tiger ate her hand. It slowly proceeded to eat the rest of her arm.”
That’s how Vikram Chari described the horrifying spectacle that he and his 6-year-old son witnessed at the San Francisco Zoo on the Friday before Christmas, when a Siberian tiger named Tatiana attacked her keeper.
For those who work with wild animals, the bloody assault is a reminder of what they already know but don’t always remember: The creatures they’ve become so attached to could kill them at any moment.
“If you’re not afraid of it, it will hurt you,” said animal behaviorist Dave Salmoni. “You can’t get the wild out of a cat because he’s in a cage.”
Tatiana’s 46-year-old victim, whom the zoo won’t name but sources identified as Lori Komejan, is still in San Francisco General Hospital. The tiger, a 350-pounder that was born in the Denver Zoo in June 2003 and arrived in San Francisco last December, is still on display in her outdoor exhibit, although the indoor Lion House is now closed.
The Lion House is where the mauling occurred. At 2:15 p.m. on the afternoon of Dec. 22, just after the public feeding with at least 50 patrons watching, Tatiana turned on Komejan. Chari and his son were standing 8 to 10 feet away, focused on another tiger named Tony, when they heard a shriek.
“The right arm was in the tiger’s mouth,” said Chari, 40, who lives in San Francisco and owns a telecom business. “The left arm was just being held there (in the claws) and the right arm was being eaten. She was screaming and flailing away.”
He said three men tried to yank Komejan, a gifted artist, from Tatiana’s grasp. The tiger pulled back, methodically devouring the arm. Finally, a zoo employee grabbed a long pole and jabbed it at Tatiana’s head. The tiger let go.
“I think most of the right arm doesn’t exist anymore,” Chari said. “What was left was hanging in strings. The tiger didn’t eat in a very clean way.”
After Komejan was released, he said, she tried to touch her right arm with her left hand as she lay writhing on the ground.
“It looked like she was trying to stop the pain, except that there was no arm where she had reached,” Chari said.
Zoo officials are investigating the mauling of Komejan, who started working there in 1997, and won’t discuss it, beyond issuing a statement mentioning “lacerations sustained to the arms.” S.F. General won’t disclose her condition, at her family’s request.
Meanwhile, friends of Komejan — a single mother with one daughter — wait and worry.
“Lori is just a dynamo,” said Wendy Blakeley, director of Africa Matters, an Oakland conservation nonprofit on whose board Komejan used to serve. “She’s just a tremendously energetic and talented woman. She has lots to offer.”
Even for onlookers such as Chari and his son, Krishna — who feared tigers even before the attack — the effects of the attack linger.
“He’s always scared that there are tigers under the bed at night, so this confirmed his suspicions,” Chari said. “Now he wants the light on, and he wants me to go in with him.”
Nonetheless, he said he feels more unnerved than Krishna does.
“He said when we left the zoo, ‘The next time, let’s see the penguins being fed instead of a tiger eating a woman.’ I did not want to scare him by saying that this was unusual.”
If Tatiana behaved the way Krishna thought a tiger would act, her savagery was also in line with what big-cat experts expect and fear.
“They can inflict real severe damage, if not kill you, because they are trained to do that,” said Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, near Minneapolis. “They are unpredictable and they have all of the accessories to get the job done. Anything can set them off. They can wake up having just a bad hair day. And they see mammals as nothing more than a piece of meat.”
Tilson, 60, has worked with big cats for 23 years. Coordinator since 1987 of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for tigers, he is specifically responsible for Siberians, also known as Amurs.
He said Siberians are critically endangered. In the wild, 412 are left, not including cubs, and they reside in Russia’s Amur River Valley. In captivity, 154 of them live in 65 association-accredited institutions.
Tilson has handled more than 700 tiger immobilizations — he’s tattooed them, collected their sperm, artificially inseminated them and performed root canals. He’s spent so much time with the cats that now he’s allergic and breaks out in hives.
As a keeper, he feared them.
“Always. Constantly,” Tilson said. “One of the most indecisive things I’ve ever done in my life was unlocking a cage and walking in to clean it. I must have checked a half-dozen times that it was empty. I never got over that — because you know what the consequences are.”
Four decades ago, at the San Francisco Zoo, Tilson saw his first tiger.
“I remember it absolutely,” he said. “It left an impression on me forever. It was like a great big cat. Christ, I didn’t know they got that big.”
Tigers still fascinate him.
“They have all the different personalities you could think of,” he said. “Some of them you want to take them home and watch TV with, some you’re just terrified of. But you never let your guard down. Anyone who says they know tigers, why don’t you call Roy Horn and ask how he’s feeling?”
Animal trainer Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by one of his tigers in a much-publicized incident three years ago on stage in Las Vegas. In the zoo world, by contrast, most attacks occur in holding areas because of human lapses, such as leaving a lock undone.
Tilson said the San Francisco Zoo attack, which took place while Komejan was in the gutter between the cages and the public viewing space, was “troubling.”
“Having an area where an animal can reach through in public circumstances is to me rather unusual,” he said. “I’ve never heard of this. That is very, very odd. That to me would not be a safe environment.”
Retired San Francisco Zoo keeper Alexander Weiss, 70, still has the scars from a Lion House injury at the hands — or rather paws — of Nicholas, a Siberian tiger who’d greet him by getting up on his hind feet with his front feet pressed against the cage. One day a paw accidentally slipped through, leaving three holes in the keeper’s arm.
“I took a hook and tapped him on the nose,” recalled the Oakland resident. “He let go. At S.F. General, I said, ‘I got clawed by a tiger.’ They said, ‘C’mon, we’ve got a lot of people waiting here.’ ”
For behaviorist Salmoni, a cat trainer for almost a decade who makes documentaries for Discovery Channel’s “Animal Planet,” an attack in 1999 by a male lion named Bongo was a turning point in his approach to animals. It happened during a live show for children at a theme park in Toronto.
“He taught me a pretty good lesson, one I’m always trying to get across to people,” said Salmoni, 31, from Ottawa, during a phone interview. “Even with the nicest animals, there’s no such thing as a tame wild cat. You can train them, but you can’t tame them. No matter how you treat them, they are opportunists. They are predators.”
Salmoni happened to be in the way of a piece of carpet that Bongo wanted. The lion charged him three times, smashing Salmoni’s rib cage and tearing up his forearm.
“He was Mr. Nice Guy. You could treat him like your family Labrador,” Salmoni said. “Obviously, being a biologist, I knew they were more than capable of doing what they did best. But until you see a cat who you think loves you try to kill you — until you see that for yourself — you wouldn’t believe it.”
The attack changed Salmoni’s strategy.
“The biggest thing for me was recognizing the fact that cats don’t think like we do — so now I know what is an opportunity for a cat and I don’t offer them that opportunity,” he said. “Often times, a cat just grabs something because it can.”
Retired zoologist John Fowler, 50, is on the board of directors of Pensacola Junior College’s two-year zookeeper study program in Florida.
“Zookeeping is a lot safer than it used to be, as far as rules and regulations built in for safety,” he said. “But there’s almost a kind of denial that there is danger anymore.”
Fowler, who managed the Chehaw Wild Animal Park in Albany, Ga., until 2003, said, “One thing that sometimes happens is that keepers think they have a personal relationship with the animal. Sometimes you can get casual or confident about something you do as a routine, day after day, year after year. You think, ‘The animal wouldn’t do that to me.’ ”
Dave Jaffe, a 39-year-old keeper in the hoofstock department of the San Francisco Zoo, said an attack like the one inflicted on Komejan is a “wake-up call.”
His colleague Bob Debets, 55, a bird keeper at the zoo, said, “I kind of take it as a reminder of the environment that we are working in.”
On a daily basis, keepers struggle with a basic dichotomy of their trade.
“If you lived every day thinking, ‘This animal is trying to kill me,’ it would really be hard to be an animal keeper,” said former San Francisco Zoo penguin keeper Jane Tollini, who was attacked by a leopard there 19 years ago. “But nothing transcends instinct. If it comes to nature versus nurture, nature wins every time.”
Tilson said the San Francisco Zoo’s six-day-a-week public feeding of the big cats is rare and possibly unique. And mealtime, with or without spectators, is particularly sensitive, said Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife WayStation, a refuge for wild and exotic animals in the Angeles National Forest in Southern California.
“I have 100 big cats here,” said Colette, 64. “All predators are more dangerous at feeding time than any other time. We don’t have visitors in our compound then. They have to keep their kill.
“Even though the San Francisco Zoo provides them with their food, you don’t take away eons of inbred behavior.”
If you wish to contribute to a fund for the San Francisco Zoo animal keeper injured in the tiger attack, you can visit this Web site: friendsofthekeepers.org.
E-mail Patricia Yollin at firstname.lastname@example.org