'Human error' may have led to tiger attack on Kansas zookeeper

The victim was identified as longtime employee Kristyn Hayden-Ortega, who has been with the Topeka Zoo since 2001.
Kristyn Hayden-Ortega
Kristyn Hayden-OrtegaCourtesy Topeka Zoo

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By David K. Li

The Topeka Zoo blamed "human error" for the almost-fatal mauling of a zookeeper by a tiger over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.

The zoo identified the victim of Saturday's attack as longtime employee Kristyn Hayden-Ortega, who has been with them since 2001, director Brendan Wiley said.

The 7-year-old male tiger, named Sanjiv, attacked Hayden-Ortega in his outdoor habitat.

"The process that we are really looking at, that we are trying to correct is, 'How can we minimize the potential for human error?'" Wiley said. "We need to find that way and minimize the possibility of human error creating an event like this."

Wiley declined to elaborate on exactly what error played a role in the attack on Hayden-Ortega.

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But earlier in his meeting with reporters, Wiley said the zoo has found no problems with the tiger enclosure — designed to keep animals safely apart from their human keepers.

Sanjiv, a Sumatran tiger at the Topeka Zoo in Topeka, Kansas in November, 2018.Topeka Capital-Journal via AP file

The zoo hasn't interviewed Hayden-Ortega yet and will wait until she's further along in her recovery, according to Wiley. She was recently moved out of the intensive care unit.

"We think we understand the sequence of events. We need her to confirm that," Wiley said.

"We were 100 percent confident in the infrastructure of that facility when we put tigers back in later that same day. We have no question about the integrity of the space or the environment."

The zoo has said there are no plans to euthanize Sanjiv, who was back on display Sunday.

Zoo employees saved Hayden-Ortega from further injury or death by showing Sanjiv his food bucket and calling his name, which lured the big cat safely away.

But had Sanjiv kept attacking Hayden-Ortega, the zoo had a 30.06-caliber hunting rifle aimed at him and was ready to fire.

"If that tiger would have taken one more turn back toward Kristyn, it would have been lethal force used to stop that aggression," Wiley said.

Shanna Simpson, an animal care supervisor at the zoo, said, "Kristyn is an amazing zookeeper."

"She is a very important member of our zookeeper staff. She's a leader. She is one of our most experienced keepers. She helps teach the less-experienced keepers."