Small ape triggered tiger escape, frenzy of events
Visitors continued to trickle into Jungle Island, a day after a 500-pound Bengal tiger escaped. Mahesh and another tiger are being kept from the public as the state’s wildlife commission investigates.
Posted on Sunday, 08.29.10
BY LAURA FIGUEROA and CHRISTINE DOLEN
Watson — a small, 8-year-old ape — was known for being a bit mischievous.
But when he sneaked out of his cage at Jungle Island on Saturday, Watson set off a chain of events straight out of a thriller movie:
A 500-pound Bengal tiger leapt over a tall fence, dozens of frantic visitors ran for their lives, and park workers labored to lure the predatory animal back into a holding cage.
“I might have shouted a bunch of cuss words after the first millisecond of shock,” said Dr. Jason Chatfield, Jungle Island’s curator. “But after that, you go back into action.”
A day after the frenzy, it became increasingly clear that Watson had triggered the unusual sequence of events at the Watson Island animal park.
Visitors continued to trickle through Jungle Island’s doors on Sunday — though Mahesh and another tiger were not on display. The pair are being kept in holding cells while an investigation continues to determine how Mahesh was able to scale over the 14-foot fence. No one was injured by the male tiger.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino said that the agency closed down the tiger exhibit “until the facility makes certain changes to its caging requirements so that this doesn’t happen again.”
The investigation is looking into the escapes of both Mahesh and Watson. “We’re investigating escaped captive wildlife, which is a violation of the law,” Pino said. “It is fair to say someone would be found responsible.”
“It’s very important to figure out exactly what happened, to design it so that it doesn’t happen again,” Chatfield said, noting that Watson Island park’s 14-foot fence was already two-feet higher than required by law.
Saturday’s series of events started around noon when the white-handed gibbon, a species of ape native to Southeast Asia, escaped from his pen. A team of four animal handlers attempted to wrangle the precocious primate, Chatfield said, but he soon made his way to the tall, fenced area enclosing the tigers.
Watson’s presence sparked the interest of Mahesh, who became “excited” and chased Watson around as he made his way across the chain-link fence.
Though he didn’t have a full view of how the tiger made it so far up the fence, Chatfield said he likely lunged, gaining enough momentum to reach the top, where he eventually fell over it.
“It didn’t charge a single person,” Chatfield said. “There was no interest in the people, maybe a passing interest. He was really after the gibbon, because it was something he’d never seen.”
Though he had a tranquilizer gun handy, Chatfield said he never found it necessary to fire.
“Our goal wasn’t to force him to do anything,” Chatfield said. “He was being a cat and roaming, circling his home. We wheeled his cage, which he is familiar with, and he wasn’t afraid of his trainers. Never once did he run or pounce. He walked around, and walked into his cage.”
While Jungle Island officials paint a picture of a controlled scene, park visitors including Leigh Stewart of Pembroke Pines gave a dramatically different account.
Stewart, who was making her first visit to Jungle Island with her two-year-old son, said she was watching when a staff worker entered the gibbon’s cage for a feeding. Watson then escaped.
“She left the gate open, but all the monkeys followed her because she was feeding them,” Stewart said. “[Watson] walked right out of the gate, but she finished feeding the rest of the monkeys, then went after it.”
Chatfield said he could not go into detail about how Watson escaped from the pen, because the incident is still under investigation. But he said a faulty lock on the first of two doors leading into the cage, combined with “human error,” may have made it easier for him to escape.
After Watson jumped into the tiger habitat, Mahesh appeared to bite the ape “on the butt,” the Pembroke Pines resident said. Watson jumped out again, as Mahesh chased after him, she said.
When someone yelled “everybody run,” Stewart dropped her purse and dashed with her family to a crowded barn, where park visitors were herded for protection.
“We stayed in this one dirty barn with more than 100 people, touching skin-to-skin,” Stewart said. “They brought in one fan. There were huge turtle cages and food for the animals in there. It was 100 degrees, dark and no light. All the kids were crying.”
No one was injured by the prowling tiger. But four people hurt during the chaos after Mahesh’s escape were treated for minor injuries. A fifth person was transported to a Miami hospital after suffering a panic attack, said Miami Fire Rescue Lt. Ignatius Carroll.
Despite hearing about Saturday’s chaotic events, visitors continued to trickle into Jungle Island on Sunday.
“It was a one-time only thing,” said Adriana Norriega, of Miami, as she carried her son Alex, 3, in her arms. “I don’t feel unsafe, and the kids always love coming here.”
Meanwhile, Watson is being kept away from the public.
“He’s a little distressed,” Chatfield said.
After Mahesh had been caged, park staff were finally able to locate Watson standing on a picnic table.
“The handler who raised the gibbon told him, `You’ve been a bad boy,’ ” Chatfield recounted. Then Watson put his head down “like he knew he had done something wrong” and jumped into the safety of his handler’s arms.