Lowry Zoo plans to replace tiger shot after escape

By VALERIE KALFRIN The Tampa Tribune
Published: Aug 24, 2006

TAMPA – Even as officials investigate whether a zookeeper should be criminally charged in a Sumatran tiger’s escape and death, Lowry Park Zoo officials said they will obtain another tiger to replace the rare animal.

Zoo President and Chief Executive Officer Lex Salisbury said Wednesday the facility will continue with the program that has brought tigers to the zoo so children can learn more about them. The zoo has a male Sumatran tiger, Eric.

“We feel like we have a moral purpose. We’re making a difference,” Salisbury said.

The zoo, he said, is conducting a review of how it handled the escape and shooting. He did not say how long the review will take.

Enshalla, the female tiger whose name means “God willing” in Arabic, was born at the zoo in August 1991. She died there Tuesday after escaping from her den and trying to scale a 7-foot rocky enclosure surrounding the old rhinoceros habitat in the Asian Domain, which is being renovated and will open incrementally in September. The zoo was open Wednesday.

A zookeeper left an access door to Enshalla’s nightly den unlatched about 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, allowing her to slip into the construction site and a dry moat in the rhino’s old quarters, where Salisbury later shot her.

At the time, the animal had “winced” from a tranquilizer dart in her hindquarters shot by zoo veterinarian David Murphy from an observation platform, Salisbury said Wednesday, pointing out where he had stood with a 12-gauge shotgun.

The dart had no immediate effect. Meanwhile, Enshalla “took one leap and almost got to the top” of the ivy-covered enclosure, he said. Murphy’s observation platform was near the top, leaving little choice but to shoot the tiger, Salisbury said.

The tiger will be cremated after a necropsy. Some tissue samples from her organs may be sent to research facilities, Murphy said.

The zookeeper, who was not identified, is on paid administrative leave while the zoo reviews the incident, Salisbury said.

The zoo’s general curator, Lee Ann Rottman, said the keeper had worked at the zoo for about a month and with the tigers for about two weeks. He had trained with a supervisor before being assigned to handle the tigers, she said.

Although he was new to Lowry Park, he previously worked with the Luby Foundation, a wildlife facility in Alachua County, after earning an associate’s degree in zoology from Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, she said.

“You’re trained in Zookeeping 101 to check your locks. He made a mistake. I don’t even know if he knows why he made it,” Rottman said. “The fact remains that we’re all human, and mistakes can be made. It’s hard for me to understand not checking locks, but it could happen to me.”

Lt. Steve De Lacure, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and an investigator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited the tiger’s quarters and inspected the shooting site Wednesday.

De Lacure said he will forward the results of his investigation to the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office to determine whether the keeper should be charged with a misdemeanor for unsafe handling of captive wildlife resulting in an escape or injury. The charge is punishable by a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.

So far, De Lacure said, he is impressed by the zoo’s 10-member shooting team having quarterly firearms training and mock escapes with one member representing an animal.

The medications used by Murphy – Metatomadine and Telazol – were appropriate under the circumstances, De Lacure said, noting that an animal’s weight, age, health and adrenaline all influence the effectiveness. Sometimes the drugs take effect after several minutes; other times, not at all, he said.

The shooting team that responded to the “Code One” – a call of an animal on the loose – on Tuesday carried weapons of different caliber, including .375, .30-06 and .308. Using the shotgun was a “tactical decision” that, from a safety standpoint, was a good choice in close quarters, De Lacure said.

He had not interviewed the zookeeper Wednesday because the man was distraught, De Lacure said.

The zoo’s protocols are inspected every five years by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association of Silver Spring, Md., zoo officials said.

Zookeepers radio one another to say where they are working before they move to another location, but officials are considering putting a “buddy system” in place where one zookeeper would follow another to ensure all pens and enclosures are properly locked, Salisbury said. Such systems can be unwieldy, he said, but “we want to make sure this never happens again.”

Overall, Salisbury said, he was satisfied with how zoo personnel handled the escape. “This is what we had to do in this circumstance, regardless of how tragic the outcome was,” Salisbury said. “Human life is more important than animal life in any situation.”

Clearwater resident Sharry Arnold, 59, sympathized with the zoo’s staff even as she mourned the death of the tiger she held as a cub. Arnold was working at Raymond James Financial Inc. in 1991 when the company sponsored the tiger exhibit and held a contest for employees to name the tigers. Arnold submitted Enshalla, an Arabic word that she had heard from a friend married to a State Department employee stationed in Africa.

“The exhibit’s special to me because of that. I can just imagine how they must feel,” she said. “She was beautiful. She was such a pretty baby.”

Reporter Valerie Kalfrin can be reached at (813) 259-7800 or vkalfrin@tampatrib.com.

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