Officials at a Palm Beach zoo made the decision to tranquilize rather than shoot a tiger standing over a keeper it had just attacked because they were worried a shot could hit the victim or ricochet and hit someone else, the zoo's president said Thursday.
Tiger expert Stacey Konwiser, 38, died after getting mauled in an enclosure at the Palm Beach Zoo on April 15.
"The animal was within inches of Stacy's body, including her head, and was prey guarding — which is a protective position tigers will assume over prey in the wild, with their ears pointed back," zoo CEO and President Andrew Aiken told reporters.
"We evaluated the situation and determined that if we were to shoot at the animal, there was a chance that we may hit Stacy," he said. The tiger and Konwiser were in a den made of concrete, steel and other materials which could have caused a ricochet, he said.
Questions have been raised over the zoo's decision to tranquilize rather than shoot the rare endangered tiger. "The zoo stands behind that decision," Aiken said Thursday.
Tranquilizer darts typically take three minutes to take effect, Aiken said. He said zoo staff and emergency medical personnel were able to get to Konwiser "within minutes" of the tiger being tranquilized.
Zoo staff found no pulse when they got to her, Aiken said. She was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition and was later pronounced dead.
Konwiser, the zoo's leading tiger expert, entered the "tiger night house" where the attack occurred shortly before a scheduled 2 p.m. tiger demonstration involving another animal, Aiken said.
At 1:55 p.m. maintenance workers heard a scream, discovered the attack and radioed for help. Police and paramedics arrived by 2:01 p.m., and the decision to tranquilize the animal was made at around 2:03 p.m., he said.
A review of documents by NBC affiliate WPTV suggests the animal was shot with the dart by 2:06 p.m. and EMS wasn't able to safely enter the enclosure until 2:12 p.m.
Konwiser and another keeper moved the tiger into the night house earlier in the day, and the zoo believes a sign was changed outside warning that an animal was inside as a secondary precaution, Aiken said.
Aiken said it is unknown why Konwiser entered the enclosure. Also unexplained is why she failed to radio her partner zookeeper to tell her she was going into the enclosure, as is normally done, he said.
"We may never know the answer to that question," Aiken said.
The Malayan tiger is endangered, but that played no role in the decision to spare its life, Aiken told reporters. There are estimated to be around 250 left in the world. The zoo has four Malayan tigers, three males and one female. The tiger that killed Konwiser was one of the males.
"If this were the last animal of its kind, and a human life were in danger, we would kill the animal if it was the right decision," Aiken said.