Cecilia M. Vega, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008
(02-18) 18:21 PST SAN FRANCISCO — After being in quarantine since the fatal Christmas Day tiger mauling, the big cats at the San Francisco Zoo were let back into their newly renovated digs over the holiday weekend and promptly did what all cats like to do: they lazily sniffed around, showed signs of indifference and then laid down and went to sleep.
The behavior cheered zookeepers, who said if the four lions and three tigers keep it up, they will be back on public display by the end of the week.
“You never know how animals like this are going to react to the changes,” said Bob Jenkins, the zoo’s director of animal care and conservation.
On Monday, news reporters and photographers were invited for the first time to the view the renovations and the cats. Zoo officials hoped the visit would help the lions and tigers become accustomed to seeing visitors after being kept behind closed doors for so long.
“It’s kind of like they’re in a strange house,” Jenkins said as he watched the tigers and lions sniff around their enclosures and mark their territory. “You’re just not sure where you can and can’t sit down.”
The cats have lived in cages behind their grotto since Christmas, when the Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped from her enclosure and killed a 17-year-old San Jose boy and seriously injured his two friends.
Since then, workers have raised the concrete moat walls surrounding the tiger enclosure from 12.6 feet high to 16.4 feet high in order to meet the minimum height recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the agency that accredits zoos around the country.
Glazing and fencing have also been added to the top of the walls, raising the barriers to 19 feet tall. Hot wire, which emits electric shocks to animals that contact it, was installed along the moat walls to keep the tigers and lions, two species that must be housed separately, from leaping out of their enclosures.
While in quarantine, zookeepers stimulated the cats by giving them toys to play with and showing them nature videos, including the Disney movie, “The Lion King.”
They also used techniques to appeal to the cats’ senses while they were locked up, including giving them hay that contained a variety of scents from other animals. But hay scented with cheap perfume proved to be the overwhelming favorite, Jenkins said.
Tatiana’s mate, Tony, who was in the grotto when the 250-pound female tiger escaped in December and was shot and killed by police, lounged in his grotto alone Monday.
But that may not be the case for very long. Zoo officials said Monday they are hoping to find another mate for him.
“I do believe he senses that his companion is not there,” said Jacqueline Jencek, the zoo’s chief of veterinary services.
In addition to the taller walls, zoo officials plan to replace temporary fencing materials near the lion and tiger enclosures with stainless steel wire mesh by sometime in March. They also want to install video surveillance cameras to monitor dangerous animals, as well as visitors.
The upgrades will cost the city about $1 million, city officials have said.
Last month the San Francisco Police Department suspended its investigation into the tiger attack after finding no evidence that the three victims taunted the animal or committed other crimes.
The attack killed Carlos Sousa Jr. His friends, brothers Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, were hospitalized for several days with claw and bite wounds to their heads and upper bodies. The tiger was fatally shot by police.
According to a police search warrant, Paul Dhaliwal told Sousa’s father that prior to the attack the three young men had yelled and waved at the tiger while standing atop the railing that previously separated zoo visitors from the exhibit. Dhaliwal, however, has denied throwing anything into the enclosure or antagonizing the animal which is against city law.
Zoo officials maintain that something unusual happened in order to provoke Tatiana out of her grotto.
In recent weeks, some local animal rights activists have criticized the zoo, saying officials are so focused on making structural improvements and visitor safety that the animals have been neglected.
Last week, the Mill Valley-based In Defense of Animals showed a video to San Francisco’s Animal Control and Welfare Commission during a hearing at City Hall, accusing zoo officials of allowing animals to pace in their pens and swim in their own waste.
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