WildCat Chat ~ Loved to Death ~ April 19, 2016

Loved to Death

After we finalized our WildCat News Brief podcast for Sunday, April 17th, I received the news that a zoo keeper at the West Palm Beach Zoo in Florida was killed by a tiger.

In our podcast, we highlighted two stories from last week regarding interactions with tigers in zoos in Dublin and Russia, with a sharp reminder that captive tigers are wild.

Earlier last week a toddler got the scare of her life while strolling about the tiger enclosure at a Dublin zoo. A sleeping adult tiger was suddenly woken by another adult tiger in the exhibit; the two began a roaring rough exchange which sent the toddler screaming in fear back to her mother.

This was followed by a young teenage girl in Russia requiring emergency surgery to save her legs after she and a friend violently banged on the cage of an adult male tiger. The tiger grabbed one of the girls by her legs. The zoo was closed at the time and the girls allegedly were under the influence of alcohol and acted without reverence. It took staff at the Russian zoo over forty minutes before being able to free the girl from the tiger.

WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society stresses the importance of educating our youth to be respectful and cautious in the presence of captive big cats: “These incidents are prime examples to illustrate that lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs or little wildcats, regardless of the fact that they are bred and raised in captivity are what they are—powerful carnivorous predators. Wildcats cannot be somehow genetically altered to change their instinctive nature, nor are these instincts lost by captive breeding.”

Subsequently, a woman visiting a zoo in Toronto decided her hat was more important than her life, when she climbed over a “barrier fence” and entered the tiger enclosure to retrieve it. And yes, a pacing adult tiger was watching her every move—Then tragically a fatal encounter.

A Washington Post news report flashed on my screen—the worst possible outcome had occurred. The incident took place on Friday night as Stacey Konwiser, lead keeper, was preparing the “tiger night house” which includes cleaning and feeding—an area out of view of the public in the back of the tiger exhibit. Ms. Konwiser was airlifted from the scene; the tiger “never escaped and the public was never in danger.” West Palm Beach Zoo is working with police, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and OSHA on the investigation of the fatal attack.

Because none of the news reports on the incident indicated otherwise, I “assume” the attack took place because the keeper was in the same enclosure as the tiger.

If this is true, I question the West Palm Beach Zoo’s practice of allowing even “senior keeper staff” to enter an enclosure especially to “clean” and “feed” when the tiger (or any wildcat) is also in the enclosure. The cats should be moved to a separate holding area while these procedures are taking place. It makes no difference that this practice is conducted “behind” the public exhibit or if an individual believes they have sixth sense of communication with wildcats.

My intention is not to offend but to educate: only under particularly limited circumstances, should staff be allowed in an enclosure with an adult wildcat of any species, and certainly, not alone, regardless of an individual’s “sense” or love or admiration for the cat. Captive wildcats are wild animals; being bred and raised in captivity, does not alter their natural instincts. We all experience moments of frustration, irritability, and boredom that may lead us to act in ways we normally would not do. This is a fact of human nature and wildcat nature.

I completely understand the emotional attachment “humans” project on wildcat species; but “we” are prey to them. More often than not, a lion, tiger, leopard or any wildcat will pay with his own life simply because he behaves according to “his nature,” if a mauling or fatal encounter occurs.

We need to incorporate practices, even above the minimum standards required by state and federal regulations that protect humans regardless of our emotional attachments and for the wildcats held in captive environments. Or better yet, finally end the practice of allowing captive wildcats to be used in commercial or entertainment venues and equally if not more importantly private ownership.

On behalf of the WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society our Board and Staff, I extend our sincere condolences to Ms. Konwiser’s family.
Lisa A. Salamat, Esq., Chief Executive Officer, WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society

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