Thursday, December 27, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The big cat exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo was cordoned off as a crime scene yesterday as investigators tried to determine whether a 300-pound Siberian tiger that killed a visitor escaped from its high-walled pen on its own or someone did something wrong.
Video: After Tiger Attacks, Search for Clues

Police fatally shot the animal after a Christmas Day rampage that began when the tiger escaped from an enclosure secured with what zoo officials said were 18-foot walls and a 20-foot moat. Two other visitors were severely mauled.

Police Chief Heather Fong said the department has opened a criminal investigation to “determine if there was human involvement in the tiger getting out or if the tiger was able to get out on its own.”

She said officers were gathering evidence from the tiger’s enclosure as well as accounts from witnesses.

One zoo official insisted the tiger did not get out through an open door and must have climbed or leaped out.

But Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo, said such a leap would be an unbelievable feat, and “virtually impossible.” “There’s something going on here. It just doesn’t feel right to me,” he said. “It just doesn’t add up to me.”

Instead, he speculated that visitors might have been fooling around and might have taunted the animal and perhaps even helped it get out.

Chief Fong did not say specifically whether police are looking into the possibility that someone deliberately let the animal out. She would not comment on whether the animal was taunted.

The same tiger, a 4-year-old female named Tatiana, ripped the flesh off a zookeeper’s arm just before Christmas a year ago while the woman was feeding the animal through the bars. A state investigation faulted the zoo, which installed better equipment at the Lion House, where the big cats are kept.

Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo said yesterday he gave no thought to destroying Tatiana after that incident, because “the tiger was acting as a normal tiger does.” As for whether Tatiana showed any warning signs before Tuesday’s attack, he said: “She seemed to be very well-adjusted into that exhibit.”

The three visitors were attacked around closing time Tuesday on the 125-acre zoo grounds. Four officers shot the animal after police got a 911 call from a zoo employee.

The dead visitor was identified as Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, of San Jose, Calif.

The two injured men, brothers ages 19 and 23, were upgraded to stable condition at San Francisco General Hospital after surgery. They suffered deep bites and claw wounds on their heads, necks, arms and hands, said Dr. Rochelle Dicker, a surgeon. She said they were expected to make a full recovery.

The zoo’s director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, said the tiger did not leave through an open door. “The animal appears to have climbed or otherwise leaped out of the enclosure,” he said.

Mr. Hanna said since zoo tigers are well-fed, it is unlikely the animal was looking for food when it got out. “Were they taunting the animal?” he said. “Were they throwing things that were making it angry?”

The first attack happened outside the tiger’s enclosure — the victim died at the scene. Another was about 300 yards away. The police chief said the animal was mauling the man, and when officers yelled at it to stop, it turned toward them and they opened fire. Only then did they see the third victim, police said.

The zoo was closed yesterday. Officials said they expected to reopen the zoo today, but the big cat exhibit will remain closed “until we get a better understanding of what actually happened,” Mr. Mollinedo said.

After last year’s attack, the state fined the zoo $18,000. The zoo added customized steel mesh over the bars, built in a feeding chute and increased the distance between the public and the cats.

Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago, Louise Chu and Terence Chea in San Francisco, and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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