By Fawn Roark
A woman received severe injuries Monday afternoon at the New River Zoo when she crossed the safety barrier fence and put her arm into a leopard’s cage, according to Director Jeff Jones of Ashe Animal Control.
Jones explained that they received the call at 1:06 p.m. and they responded immediately to the Zoo. A 36-year-old Hamilton woman, Susan Thomas, had been bitten on the arm and wrist area. An investigation was opened by Ashe Animal Control to determine the cause and the circumstances surrounding the bite.
Jones said they determined that Thomas crossed the barrier fence and proceeded to put her hand and arm into the leopard’s cage via the gate area of the pen. A female black leopard, Diane, then bit down on the woman’s arm. Owner Keith Stroud of the New River Zoo observed what was going on and ran up the path to the woman. He tried to get the leopard to release and after a short struggle he was able to get the leopard to release Thomas’ arm. Emergency personnel responded to the scene and transported Thomas to Watauga Medical Center. As of Monday evening, Thomas was scheduled to go to surgery.
“During our investigation at the zoo, we did not find any violations on the part of New River Zoo and this was the first incident like this that has occurred there. The cat was securely enclosed in its pen and Ms. Thomas crossed the barrier fence and attempted to pet the cat,” Jones noted.
The incident was then reported to the appropriate state officials and after great consideration, the recommendation from the state was that the leopard be euthanized and sent to Raleigh, which has already occurred. “This is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. My hands were tied after the state made their recommendation and I had no choice. I was unable to save the cat’s life,” Jones noted.
The investigation is still open, Jones said, and at this point in the investigation, they have found no violations at the Zoo. Jones was also very careful to reiterate that the incident is no reflection of the New River Zoo. “Keith is a very good resource for our county and he is a very wonderful educational resource for our area. Many school groups go out there often and he does a great job educating the children and whoever goes out there. He has a great facility and he is trying to do a good thing there,” Jones explained.
Diane was the newest leopard to arrive at the Zoo. She has been at the Zoo since August and was hopefully going to have baby leopards with Loki, a spotted leopard. Stroud said he was very appreciative of how Animal Control handled the situation.
“These are wild animals. They may be really tame to me, but they definitely will not be as tame to anyone else. Jeff and Animal Control just went out of their way to try and save the cat’s life. They did everything they could to prevent having to put her down,” Stroud explained. “There was nothing they could do to avoid it. They dealt with me in the most respectful way. I have nothing but the utmost respect for our animal control officers. Ashe County is lucky to have animal control officers like this. It is just a lose-lose situation and no one wins in a situation like this. Diane was a very beautiful, very sweet animal.”