No crime in Lowry Park tiger escape

Prosecutors say the Lowry Park Zoo employee erred but he had no criminal intent.

By Abbie Vansickle
Published November 15, 2006

TAMPA – Lowry Park Zoo worker Christopher Allen Lennon made a mistake when he forgot to lock a Sumatran tiger’s cage, allowing the rare animal to escape.

But he committed no crime, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

“There was no criminal intent,” said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi. The incident was “simply human error.”

The decision came nearly three months after the tiger escaped and lunged at the zoo’s veterinarian, prompting the zoo’s president to fatally shoot the animal.

Lennon lost his job over the mistake, and the situation prompted a change in zoo policy. Now, two zoo staffers must check that each lock is secured, said zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson. Prior to the August incident, zoo policy required only one zookeeper to do checks.

“It’s just an additional safety procedure that will help eliminate human errors,” Nelson said.

Zoo officials agree with the prosecutors’ decision, Nelson said.

“We are certainly pleased with their decision, and we concur with their findings,” Nelson said. “The circumstances that led to the death of the tiger was just an unfortunate human error.”

Lennon did not return telephone messages for comment.

Lennon, 33, had worked for the zoo for about a month before the tiger escape. He trained at Santa Fe Community College, where he studied zoology. After graduating, he was temporarily employed at the Lubee Bat Conservancy, where he handled fruit bats.

On his Myspace page, Lennon lists his occupation as zookeeper. He posted photos of bats and snakes. He says he grew up in West Virginia and briefly attended college in Pennsylvania for theater before deciding to become a zookeeper.

The day after the tiger, Enshalla, escaped, Lennon told a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigator that he didn’t notice the unlocked cage until it was too late.

It happened just before closing time Aug. 22. Lennon was in the tiger’s night enclosure, preparing dinner for the animals.

He gave Enshalla her food. Then, he went into a hallway to prepare dinner for another tiger. He said he heard a noise, turned, and saw a chunk of meat on the floor outside the enclosures.

That’s when he realized Enshalla was free.

“The female’s door was open,” he wrote in the statement. “I turned around, and she was in the other room just past the way, looking at me. I threw the gate shut to separate us, and she turned and calmly walked out into the new tapir exhibit.”

He quickly radioed other zoo employees about the emergency.

Help soon arrived. The zoo’s veterinarian, David Murphy, tried to calm Enshalla with a tranquilizer dart. But when the tiger lunged at him, zoo president Lex Salisbury killed the animal with a 12-gauge shotgun.

The next day, a Fish and Wildlife inspector reviewed the incident. He found that all the locks worked properly. Lennon forgot to lock the cage door, the investigator reported. Lennon also didn’t use two doors in the night enclosure that could have prevented Enshalla from leaving the building, he concluded.

“Since they were not used, this allowed the tiger free passage to an unsecured area; allowing the tiger access to the zoo patrons and zoo employees,” the investigator wrote.

He recommended Lennon be charged with improper handling of captive wildlife that results in an escape.

Gary Morse, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, declined to comment on the prosecutors’ decision not to file the charge.

“That is strictly the state prosecutor’s decision,” Morse said.

Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

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