Donning decorative cat ears, Stacey Konwiser spoke on video to The Palm Beach Post on the importance of Global Tiger Day in July 2015, explaining the breeding program for big cats at the Palm Beach Zoo.
Behind her, looking majestic — even suave resting on some rocks — is a 350-pound Malayan tiger named Hati.
This animal would be her killer.
A year after Konwiser’s death by a neck injury inflicted in an attack by Hati, it remains a mystery why the zoo’s lead tiger expert unlocked two padlocks and walked into the cage of an animal described as a “down-to-the-bone male tiger.” She apparently ignored a sign on his cage that stated clearly that the animal was present in the “night house” behind the exhibit.
For her parents, Larry and Melody Feige, investigators’ conclusions ring hollow.
“We fear that we will never know what really happened that awful day,” the Southern California couple said in an e-mailed statement to The Post.
“The real tribute to her would be if we can discover the honest truth of why and how this happened, so that keepers, zoo guests and Stacey’s beloved tigers will be safe in zoos everywhere.”
Konwiser died on April 15, 2016, days away from leaving the zoo to embark on a new career with the Food and Drug Administration. It is unknown whether Konwiser even saw Hati, whether he was out of sight in the black box dubbed the “birthing den” or crouched elsewhere in the compartmental cage.
The FWC investigation said Hati had three possible entry points into the part of the cage where Konwiser was killed.
Respected power of tigers
Was Konwiser in too much of a hurry, preparing for one of her “tiger talks” to zoo patrons? Nicknamed the “tiger whisperer,” did Konwiser make the mistake that she as their handler had a special bond with these intelligent and crafty killing machines?
Her parents reject such speculation.
“Stacey was a consummate professional who loved, protected, understood and completely respected the power of the tigers in her care,” the Feiges wrote.
“She was neither careless nor irresponsible and would never have knowingly put zoo guests, her co-workers or herself in danger by entering an occupied enclosure. Anyone who knew Stacey knows that she had an insatiable curiosity and never stopped learning.”
The USDA determined Konwiser did not follow “established safety procedures.” The FWC said she failed to have the necessary safety equipment.
OSHA made eight recommendations to the zoo, including installing video monitoring equipment to “track locations of tigers” and installing “electronic door position status detectors” to display when animals have access to certain areas of the enclosure.
And while Konwiser’s parents gave their first lengthy statement on the death of their daughter, her husband and fellow zookeeper — Jeremy Konwiser — could not be located for comment.
No doubt the zoo would like to move on from the public relations nightmare of one of its signature animals — Hati is as photogenic as it gets — attacking a top staffer.
“We have been very transparent throughout the incident, and to that end, there is no additional information to provide,” said spokeswoman Naki Carter. The zoo will hold the Stacey Konwiser Memorial Save the Tiger 5K on May 20.
Jack Hanna, a part-time Jupiter resident and one of the world’s best-known animal experts, said zoos remain one of the safest places to work considering the number of visitors and animals. It is just that when there is an incident, the news media focus on it because it involves a wild animal.
Handlers, like Konwiser, got into the zoological field out of a need to educate people about these animals, to give them a chance to observe a creature they might never have the chance to otherwise see in the wild, he said.
“We don’t work at these parks for the money,” said Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. “We work at these parks for our passion and love for animals.”
While what motivated Konwiser to enter the tiger cage remains elusive, opponents of keeping tigers and other apex predators in zoos say there is one thing for certain: She won’t be the last zookeeper to die.
“When you keep dangerous wildlife in captivity, people die. It happens over and over again,” said Carter Dillard, senior counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “The bottom line is people are showing off animals that ought to be in the wild.”
When animals attack
There have been various tiger attacks at zoos — two in San Francisco involving a Siberian tiger named Tatiana. She was shot to death in 2007 after escaping her compound and mauling three visitors, killing one.
Closer to home, a white Bengal tiger named Lucky killed his keeper at Zoo Miami in 1994.
In 2013, a zookeeper died in front of shocked visitors from a single bite to the throat from a tiger at a zoo in Munster, Germany.
Ron Magill, spokesman for ZooMiami said unfortunately, zookeepers can fall into the bad habit of routine and make fatal assumptions during their work day — which is what happened in the Miami and Germany attacks.
When he heard about the tiger attack at the Palm Beach Zoo, Magill said he immediately thought of Hati, who had spent time in Miami. He called the cat, “a freaking, down-to-the-bone male tiger” known to be aggressive, domineering and territorial.
As beautiful as these big cats appear, they are crafty and opportunistic with an instinct to hunt prey — a Hannibal Lecter in stripes.
“People don’t understand these animals have wild brains. They have wild drives,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado
“They sit around in a cage all day and they are still wild animals. They are bored to death and they pick up on the smallest things.”
Bekoff has written a book, The Animals’ Agenda, due out next month, which explores the role of zoos in modern times. He says it’s time to rethink the breeding program for these animals — whether it is humane to raise tigers or gorillas in confined quarters where they cannot make the simplest of choices they could make in the wild.
“These animals living in cages are not ambassadors for their species: They are moneymakers,” Bekoff said. “They ship them around like furniture, like they are objects, just so they can breed them.”
Hati was brought to the Palm Beach Zoo as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan Program, developed in 1981. It has three males and one female tiger — including Hati.
“Essentially, it works like Match.com for Malayan tigers,” Konwiser said in the video shot by The Post for Global Tiger Day to bring awareness to conservation. “What it does is matches all the Malayan tigers in the United States based on their genetics.”
The goal of the program is to maintain self-sustaining populations by matching genetically diverse endangered animals and maybe even reintroduce some species back into the wild. The AZA program has reportedly saved species such as the red wolf, the California condor, and the black-footed ferret.
The Palm Beach Zoo has refused to acknowledge that the attack came from 14-year-old Hati, its prize stud tiger brought to the park to impregnate a female cat as part of a heralded breeding program for the endangered animals.
“The zoo is an organization deeply committed to species survival. The zoo has no interest in assisting, allowing or encouraging blame on one of only 250 Malayan tigers remaining in existence,” a statement read at the time of Konwiser’s death.
Hanna said the AZA breeding program for endangered species is one of the greatest things to happen in the world of zoology. “Zoological parks are getting better every year,” Hanna said. “We are literally the ark for the animal world.”
He said animal activists who criticize zoos are stuck in the past when these fantastic beasts were kept in small cages. Today, he said, zoos spend millions of dollars to meet these animals’ physiological and sociological needs.
“In a perfect world, we would not need zoos, but right now, sadly enough, we have animal populations and animal habitats disappearing,” Hanna said. “Zoos and aquariums, because of these habitats disappearing, have become the last refuge of many species.”
But Konwiser’s death by tiger opened up the debate about zoos, their breeding programs and safety. Initially, the Palm Beach Zoo was put on the defensive as details were slow to emerge.
There were questions such as why it took fire-rescue paramedics 17 minutes to get to Konwiser, why the tiger was tranquilized and not shot dead immediately, why Konwiser was in the tiger enclosure alone and not buddied up with another staffer.
Andrew Aiken, the zoo’s CEO and president, remained silent until a full week after the incident, holding up the “Animal Access” sign at a news conference that was on the door of the tiger cage when Konwiser entered.
Aiken revealed that zoo staffers and emergency personnel had trouble getting to Konwiser immediately after the attack because Hati was “prey guarding” over her body, making it difficult to even shoot the animal.
The tiger was eventually tranquilized, but Konwiser succumbed to her wounds — which included claw marks down her back.
Konwiser’s death certainly didn’t keep the public away from the zoo for long. It remains a West Palm Beach institution, a right-of-passage for families with young children.
Three weeks after Konwiser’s death, the zoo announced it was on track for record attendance but it would not confirm when asked recently if it reached that goal. Nor would it say whether any of OSHA’s recommendations have been adopted.
According to the book American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, 181 million people each year visit U.S. accredited zoos where more than 6,000 species are held.
Despite such enthusiasm, Dillard said the public is slowly starting to have a change of heart, increasingly opting to see animals in their natural habitat through eco-tourism rather than in confinement for a low-cost ticket. The American public did sour on circuses and orca whale shows.
“It’s about replacing the menagerie of the outdated 19th-century view that we reduce animals to things we capture and cage,” he said. “I think it is all part of the evolution of people understanding that animals belong in the wild.”
And some zoos are saying it is time to change.
The Buenos Aires Zoo in Argentina closed this past year after 140 years of operation, shipping all of its 2,500 animals to natural reserves. Only animals rescued from illegal trafficking can be found there now. “This situation of captivity is degrading for the animals; it’s not the way to take care of them,” Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta told The Guardian.
Whether this is a bellwether remains to be seen. But few would have thought Sea World would phase out its orca shows in the U.S. until the movie ‘Blackfish’ documented attacks on trainers.
Bobbie Brink, who runs Lions, Tigers & Bears, a sanctuary near San Diego, said the reintroduction of tigers back in the wild is a pipe dream even if it is done with the best intentions.
“It is going to be up to our younger generation, the millennials, to decide if we continue to breed big cats for nothing more than to see them in cages,” she said.
Researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission: Found no violation of state rules or regulations. The tiger had three possible entry points into the room where the attack occured.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Safety protocols were not followed by Konwiser and noted tree-limb cuttings and other items along could trip a keeper and force them to fall against the fencing of the tiger enclosure.
West Beach police: Tiger lay next to Konwiser’s body until shot with a tranquilizer dart, leaving the area. Konwiser was able to tell staffers she was hurt, but then was unable to respond to questions. Anybody immediately responding to Konwiser would have been mauled.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Could not issue any citation in Konwiser’s death because there were no specific standards for the incident. It made eight recommendations, including installing video monitoring equipment to “track locations of tigers” as well as “electronic door position status detectors” to display when animals have access to certain areas of the enclosure.