Tiger attack reminder of how California has changed
– C.W. Nevius
Saturday, January 20, 2007
A tiger’s mauling of a keeper at the San Francisco Zoo last month got us thinking about other big cat attacks in the Bay Area. The most recent was 8 1/2 years ago, when a 300-pound Bengal tiger named Kuma turned on Jaunell Waldo as she posed for a photo at Marine World in Vallejo.
“He bit through my head, damaged my vertebra and my ear canal,” recalls Waldo, speaking publicly about the incident for the first time. “The bottom third of my face was on my chest. They had to sew all of that back.”
Today, she is remarkably upbeat. She’s 53 years old and happily retired from her job as a land-use planner, and she has twice volunteered to help rebuild parts of Mississippi damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But she admits the tiger attack changed her life.
“It was a pretty good outcome, given the circumstances,” she says. “I’m just incredibly lucky that it came out the way it did.”
But as San Francisco Zoo officials and others debate whether to resume public feedings in the aftermath of the Dec. 22 attack, when a Siberian tiger chewed up Lori Komejan’s right arm during feeding time, a story like Waldo’s seems surreal. What in the world were she and others before her doing posing for pictures with a deadly wild animal?
The answer? It wasn’t so long ago that such interactions weren’t considered unusual. Photo sessions like Waldo’s were common at wildlife parks all over the nation. Joe Dearborn, who was public relations director for the Golden State Warriors from 1978 to 1985, remembers when Marine World brought in wild animals for halftime shows.
I clearly remember sitting in the press row, right on the floor, next to a sportswriter who was typing away on his game story. He was concentrating so deeply that I doubt that he even knew that there were animals on the basketball floor.
And he certainly didn’t know that the Marine World trainers had rolled a basketball down the floor for the tiger to chase until he looked up from his keyboard and saw a Bengal tiger 5 feet away, running at him, with its paw in the air to crush the basketball.
He nearly fell backward off his chair.
“And this was a fully functional tiger with claws and everything,” Dearborn says. “Now I look back and I think, in an arena of 15,000 screaming, drunken people, what were we thinking?”
The answer, experts say today, is that things are different now. (Marine World’s ownership has changed since the 1998 incident, and the park no longer puts tigers in public sites.)
“The industry has changed so much,” says Diana Guerrero, a wild animal trainer and author who has consulted with several zoos, including San Francisco’s. “I remember when people in California used to have tigers as pets.”
Those were the days. Greg von Schottenstein was the director of events for the Warriors back in the ’80s when a tiger on a chain was part of the entertainment.
“I guess it was a simpler time when we didn’t think about those things,” he says. “They came once or twice a year, and people looked forward to it. It was one of our most popular shows.”
Nor was there any reason to think that Waldo’s photo opportunity would go wrong. She says trainers told her they’d done more than 100 sessions with members of the public. For $250, visitors were taken to a backstage area. She says she knelt down next to the tiger but lost her balance and fell.
“And the tiger said, ‘Oh, there’s a toy,’ ” Waldo says. “But it’s a cat, and when they play, they play to kill. I closed down my chin to protect my neck, and that’s why he got my face.”
Trainer Chad Zierenberg forced his way between Waldo and the tiger and was clawed on the back. The trainers were unable to get Kuma to respond to commands until someone rushed in and sprayed a fire extinguisher. The whoosh scared the animal enough to stop.
Waldo looks back at the incident with as much good cheer as possible. She’s even petted a tiger since then. Why not, she says.
“It was almost like immersion therapy,” she says. “It seemed like every doctor’s office I went to had a picture of a tiger on the wall. Even when I went to gas stations they had tigers” — for the “tiger in your tank” commercials.
She says she’s getting along nicely, although her neck “doesn’t work quite as well as it used to” and she has a dimple on her cheek. She does have to deal with the occasional new acquaintance who wonders how she got those unusual scars. Some of the reactions are priceless.
When she tells some people that she was mauled by a tiger, they say ” ‘Oh, so what are you doing this evening?’ Like they didn’t even hear it.”
But one person who will never forget is Waldo’s good friend, who gave her the photo opportunity in the first place. The friend felt terrible, of course, but with characteristic good humor Waldo teased her into making up for it.
“I told her I finally got to ride in a helicopter (to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek after the attack) and I didn’t get to look out the window,” Waldo says. “So the next year she gave me a scenic helicopter ride.”
C.W. Nevius’ column appears regularly. His blog, C.W. Nevius.blog, and podcast, “News Wrap,” can be found at sfgate.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.