West Palm police report details screams, problems during tiger attack

As lead keeper Stacey Konwiser lay unconscious in a pool of blood inside a cage of the tiger night house at the Palm Beach Zoo, fellow keepers tried to lure the 300-pound tiger away from their colleague with meat and rats.

But Hati, a 13-year-old Malayan tiger, was stubborn, the zoo’s staff told city police. He was also Konwiser’s favorite, one keeper said.

Instead, the stud tiger lay next to Konwiser’s body until he was shot with a dart gun, got up and left the room as the sedative began to take effect, according to a 20-page death investigation report released by city police this week.

The report revealed more details into the April 15 death of beloved keeper Konwiser and detailed efforts by those who reacted to the scene. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued a hazard alert letter to the zoo after an investigation into Konwiser’s death.

Konwiser, 37, died from a neck injury caused by Hati when she went inside of a cage in the tiger night house just before a “tiger talk” for zoo patrons. Zoo officials said the cage was clearly marked that the tiger was inside, although a report from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office said Konwiser may have never seen the tiger if he was hiding in the covered “birthing den” inside the cage. The birthing den cannot be seen from the entrance of the cage.

Why Konwiser went into the cage remains unknown. Everyone city police interviewed said they had no idea why she would have gone in if she knew the tiger was there.

On that Friday afternoon, two zoo maintenance employees heard Konwiser scream and call for help as they passed near the tiger night house, according to the police report. When one of the men ran over, he asked if the then-unidentified woman was hurt, and he told police she screamed back, “Yes!”

When she didn’t respond to his next question, he knew something was wrong and made a call over the radio, advising there was an emergency at the tiger night house. He told police he went into the night house, but as soon as he saw the cage door was open, he knew it was not safe to go inside. He closed the door and called for help again.

He told police if he had gone inside, he would have “literally gotten mauled.”

Once the call went out on the radio, keepers from all over the zoo came to the scene, including Konwiser’s husband, Jeremy. Though not everyone saw either Hati or Konwiser, they saw the tiger had access outside of the cage, endangering anyone who might enter the night house. So they tried to lure Hati away with meat but to no avail, according to the report.

Eventually, the zoo veterinarian was able to shoot a dart at Hati, and the animal was sedated soon afterward, so medical personnel could get to Konwiser. The choice to tranquilize was controversial during the first few days, many asking why staff didn’t shoot to kill the tiger. But zoo officials defended themselves and said they might have injured Konwiser instead.

In its report, OSHA said it cannot issue any citation in the death of Konwiser because there are no specific standards that apply to the incident. But it did make eight recommendations to prevent incidents like this one from happening, including installing video monitoring equipment to “track location and movement of tigers” as well as “electronic door position status detectors” to display when animals have access to certain areas.

The zoo said it does not believe any of the “additional safety recommendations played a role in the accident,”

“We respect OSHA and its thorough investigation and we’ve already implemented many of the agencies suggested changes,” said Andrew Aiken, Zoo president and chief executive.

Zoo officials did not respond to questions as to what recommendations they have put in place.

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