Florida zoo tiger attack: Time to rethink animal captivity?

A Malayan tiger attacked and killed a veteran keeper. This is not the first zookeeper killed by a tiger and it comes when many Americans are rethinking animal captivity. 

(Damon Higgins/Palm Beach Post via AP)
Police officers enter the administration building at the Palm Beach Zoo after zookeeper Stacey Konwiser died while being attacked by a tiger, Friday, April 15, 2016, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Stacey Konwiser, 38, was attacked and killed by a 13-year-old male tiger in an enclosure known as the night house that is not visible to the public, Palm Beach Zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter said. It's where the tigers sleep and are fed.

A Malayan tiger attacked and killed a veteran keeper Friday afternoon at a South Florida zoo, officials said.

Stacey Konwiser, 38, was killed by the 13-year-old male tiger in an enclosure known as the night house that is not visible to the public, Palm Beach Zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter said. It's where the tigers sleep and are fed.

The tiger was tranquilized and authorities had to wait until the sedative took effect before they could come to Konwiser's aid, West Palm Beach police spokeswoman Lori Colombino said.

Media reports said guests were herded into the gift shop for a short time out of an abundance of caution. Police also confirmed that the tiger was in a contained area and guests were not at risk.

"At no time was any guest or visitor in danger. At no time was any animal loose," Carter said.

The zoo said it will remain closed Friday, and Carter said they will make a determination about Saturday later.

Zoo officials said Konwiser's husband was also a zoo keeper there. Grief counselors had been sent in for the staff, and zoo officials said they were reaching out to Konwiser's family members, who live out of state. They declined to comment on whether there had been other incidents with the tiger.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officials said they planned to investigate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also investigating.

This attack comes at a time when many Americans – as well as zoos, circuses, and marine aquariums – are rethinking how animals should be treated, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

While some groups argue that taking in animals from the wild is critical to keeping species alive and educating the public, others are disputing the validity of any preservation strategy that involves violence or captivity – and discussing alternatives to killing or capturing in the name of conservancy.

The approach – known as “compassionate,” or “ethical,” conservation – draws from growing research that supports treating animals as individuals with distinct personalities and intrinsically valuable lives, instead of anonymous members of a species.

“I do think there has been an increase in conversations about the value of individual animals’ well-being in conservation,” says Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and co-coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “Who are the individuals? What roles do they play? How does enhancing their well-being trickle down to the community? Those are the clear issues that you need to understand, [and] I think it’s still coming to light.”

Friday's Miami attack is not the first by a tiger in a zoo.

On Sept. 20, 2015, a remarkably similar fatal attack occurred at a New Zealand zoo. Zookeeper Samantha Kudeweh, with 20 years experience, was killed by a male Sumatran tiger at the Hamilton Zoo. She was in the enclosure alone on a Sunday morning, with no witnesses or closed circuit TV cameras. Three investigations into the attack have not been concluded. The tiger has not been euthanized. 

In 2009, senior zookeeper Dalu Mncube was mauled to death by a white tiger at the Zion Wildlife Gardens in New Zealand. Two zookeepers had entered the tiger's enclosure to clean it and were attacked. That same tiger had attacked another zookeeper earlier in the year, and the zookeeper survived. After the second attack, the tiger was fatally shot. 

Stuff.co.nz reported at the time:

Dalu Mncube, who was killed in today's attack, saved a fellow staffer at the park in February.

Park employee Demetri Price required surgery after he was attacked by a white tiger he had been working with. The cat had been spooked by a pride of lions, but Mr Mncube had stopped the attack by using his hands to open the tiger's jaws.

"I never got scared," Mr Mncube said at the time.

"You stay nice and calm. If I got scared and panicked we could have had two casualties ... it happened in a flash. It was over before we knew it."

A keeper of nine years' experience, Mr Mncube said all keepers knew to keep calm if an animal bit and he had played down his role at the time.


David Fischer contributed to this report.

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