New zookeeper impressed staff before tiger’s escape

By THOMAS W. KRAUSE The Tampa Tribune
Published: Aug 25, 2006

TAMPA – A rookie zookeeper told a state wildlife investigator that he is distraught and embarrassed and worries that the media will release his name.

Lowry Park Zoo officials have said the unidentified keeper failed to latch the cage of Enshalla, a 6-foot-long, 200-pound Sumatran tiger. The tiger escaped into a construction area Tuesday evening and was shot to death after a tranquilizer dart didn’t have an immediate effect.

The keeper worked at the zoo for about a month and with the tiger for about two weeks before the escape. Previously, the keeper spent two years at the Teaching Zoo at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville and a few months at Lubee Bat Conservancy, where he handled fruit bats.

“He’s upset,” said Lt. Steve De Lacure, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “He’s embarrassed. He’s a high achiever, it seems. Educationally, he’s a pretty sharp guy.”

De Lacure said he will refer the case to the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office next week, where prosecutors will decide if they should charge the man with a second-degree misdemeanor in connection with the animal’s escape.

The man’s name will be released on public documents by then, De Lacure said. He said the keeper was worried he would have trouble finding work in the future if his name is attached to this incident.

The keeper is on paid administrative leave while the investigation continues.

Keeper Given Excellent Reference

Rachel Nelson, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said the keeper did well in training and, with the exception of Tuesday’s incident, the staff was impressed with him.

Although the Teaching Zoo does have dangerous animals, including alligators and pythons, it does not have tigers. It is unclear whether the keeper had worked with tigers before. His former boss at the bat conservancy, however, said he had experience with similar cages.

“He worked with bats; we keep bats,” said Allyson Walsh, director of the Gainesville conservancy. “Bats are in the same classification as tigers. I know it’s a laugh, but that’s according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”

Because fruit bats and tigers are classified the same, protocol in handling their cages is the same, Walsh said. “Although the actual implications of escape are not the same.”

Nelson, the zoo spokeswoman, said professors at Santa Fe College gave the keeper an excellent reference and said he was capable of handling the tiger cage.

They’re Dealing With Media Blitz

She said the zoo has had an extreme number of inquiries from the media and had a difficult time Thursday handling individual requests for information. A news conference is scheduled for today, and zoo experts will try to answer as many questions as possible.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits zoos, said Lowry Park has had an exemplary record since 1989, when it first was accredited. Recently, when the agency decided to give a few of its best zoos an extra year between inspections, it chose Lowry Park because of the zoo’s superior record.

Denny Lewis, the director of accreditation, said all zoos that apply for accreditation provide a comprehensive report on security and training policies. A panel of veterinary and wildlife experts examines that policy.

According to agency standards, Lowry Park officials seemed to have handled the tiger’s escape in near-perfect form. The accreditation standards dictate that zoo authorities regularly train in firearms, conduct emergency drills and have a communications procedure in place to alert officials of an escape. All these steps were taken at Lowry Park.

Unclear, however, are the standards for preventive measures zoo officials must take.

“We do very much look at proactive measures,” Lewis said. “We make sure when we go to do an accreditation that they’ve got not just training procedures in place but also lock-in and lock-out practices that are generally accepted within modern zoological practices and philosophies.”

But, Lewis said, each zoo has different proactive policies based on the number of animals, the layout of the exhibit and the staff on hand. He had no details on the proactive policies at Lowry Park.

Within the next 30 days, Lowry park officials must send all investigative reports to the agency for inspection. The accrediting agency will work to find out what went wrong, how it happened and what steps will be taken to make sure it does not happen again.

In 2010, when the zoo is up for reaccreditation, this incident will be reviewed again to ensure any needed changes are still in place, Lewis said.

“Thankfully, these kinds of issues are not very common,” he said. “When they do occur, we want to know why.”

Reporter Thomas W. Krause can be reached at (813) 259-7698 or tkrause@tampatrib.com.

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