A tiger killed a keeper at a South Florida zoo shortly before 2 p.m. on Friday when the veteran keeper was preparing the 13-year-old tiger for a show called “Tiger Talk.” Shows like “Tiger Talk” are intended to introduce zoo visitors to amazing animals and to get to know them. However, after Friday’s fatal incident, the question is – how much do tigers enjoy being used as a display?
According to a Palm Beach Post report on April 16, 38-year-old zookeeper Stacey Konwiser was performing basic tasks in the tiger’s enclosed area when the animal bit her severely. Konwiser was airlifted to St. Mary’s Medical Center, where she died from her injury around 3 p.m. The zoo will remain closed through the weekend.
Konwiser “was just getting ready to start what the zoo calls the ‘Tiger Talk’ program when the attack happened,” writes Western Mass News.
The Palm Beach Zoo is home to four Malayan tigers, three males and one female. The tiger involved in Friday’s fatality was one of the male tigers. At the time of the attack, Konwiser was in what is known as the tiger night house where the animals eat and sleep.
After the keeper was attacked by the tiger, a code red was issued by zoo officials. Even though the tiger was reportedly never on the loose, some visitors were evacuated while others were taken to the gift shop. Before getting to Konwiser, officials had to wait until the male Malayan tiger responded to the tranquilizer and was subdued.
“West Palm Beach police said the tiger was tranquilized and officers waited until the drugs took effect before they could reach the victim.”
According to zoo officials, the veteran zookeeper, also known as the “tiger whisperer” had been working at the zoo for three years and did not appear to be doing anything unusual as she was working in the tiger night house enclosure. Konwiser’s husband was also a trainer at the zoo.
“This was her specialty,” says zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter. “She loved tigers. You don’t get into this business without the love for the animals and understanding the danger that’s involved even more.” Carter also told the Palm Beach Post that Konwiser had a special bond with the big cats:
“I kind of referred to her as a tiger whisperer,” Carter said. “They spoke to each other in a language that only they could understand. And I can’t put into words or make you understand for anyone who didn’t know Stacey how much she loved these tigers and how much this zoo family loved her. And while she’s no longer with us, her memory will live on.”
Konwiser had graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor’s degree in biology, graduated and received her master’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Queensland in Australia, and worked for The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in California from May 2003 until January 2013. She was planning on working for The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation after being a zookeeper.
According to her Everipedia page, “Stacey Konwiser was a longtime zookeeper and lover of animals. She was employed at Palm Beach Zoo for three years. Konwiser dedicated her life to her mission of protecting endangered species. At Palm Beach Zoo she was known as the ‘Tiger Whisperer’.”
Malayan tigers are an endangered species and there are less than 250 left in the wild. Four of the tigers kept in captivity are at the Palm Beach Zoo which is involved in a tiger breeding program. According to zoo officials, zoo employees are “vigilant about safety.”
However, Friday’s tragic death of a zookeeper by a tiger is raising several questions. Why was Konwiser alone with a tiger and in such a close proximity to a male tiger that he could injure her fatally with one bite?
The tiger attack is being investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and includes a review of surveillance video. The attack is the first fatal incident in the zoo’s 60-year-long history.
The Palm Beach Zoo issued a public statement about the fatal tiger attack and includes the following information in regard to its use of animals:
“As a private organization that does not receive government funding, The Zoological Society of the Palm Beaches exists to inspire people to act on behalf of wildlife and the natural world. We advance our conservation mission through endangered species propagation, education and support of conservation initiatives in the field. Our commitment to sustainable business practices elevates our capacity to inspire others.”
Despite the rare occurrence at the Palm Beach Zoo, PETA is responding to the issue of wild animals being used for human amusement:
“Today’s incident is only the latest in a long list of fatal maulings around the world, and that list will continue to grow as long as tigers and other exotic animals are locked in cages and compounds for human amusement. In nature, tigers have home ranges of hundreds of miles, so it’s no wonder that confining them to small spaces causes them to lash out in frustration, stress, anxiety, and agitation because they’re denied their freedom and the ability to behave normally in every way—including choosing their mates, raising their young, and seeking privacy from prying eyes.”
While PETA is sending out its condolences to the zookeeper’s family, it is also expressing the hope that “that this incident will save human lives in the future by making zoos everywhere reconsider the confinement of big cats and other wildlife.”
As for the fate of the Malayan tiger, Friday’s public statement by the Palm Beach Zoo did not mention whether the 13-year-old tiger will be put down after killing the keeper.