Evidence points to stud tiger Hati as Palm Beach Zoo keeper’s killer

Updated April 19, 2016

The Palm Beach Zoo remains steadfast in not identifying which one of its three male Malayan tigers mauled to death zookeeper Stacey Feige Konwiser — saying it could lead to the animal’s harm.

But based on information available Tuesday to The Palm Beach Post, indications are that the killer is a 13-year-old stud breeder with a reputation for aggressiveness named Hati.

Shortly after The Post requested comment on Hati, the zoo announced that authorities were investigating threats against the animal involved in the death of Konwiser, the first time in the zoo’s history that an animal killed a person. Zoo officials appealed to all media sources to refrain from naming the tiger, part of a critically endangered breed. There are an estimated 250 Malayan tigers in existence.

“Identifying the animal only serves to stigmatize and potentially places the tiger in harm’s way,” the zoo’s statement read.

Hati became a top suspect after The Post compiled initial reports reporting the age of the tiger, spoke to sources connected with zoos in South Florida and watched Tuesday as the zoo removed news releases on its website after inquiries about Hati, who came to the Palm Beach Zoo last year.

Hati was born at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas but was a fixture for years at Zoo Miami before that facility’s breeding program changed to Sumatran tigers.

Ron Magill, spokesman for Zoo Miami, described Hati as aggressive and domineering, “a freaking, down-to-bone male tiger.”

“I was wondering if it was Hati right away,” Magill said. “Hati is everything a male tiger should be. He is incredibly territorial and we all knew that at the zoo.”

Magill said Hati is the perfect example that “you can take the animal out of the wild, but not the wild out of the animal.”

Hati made international headlines in 2012 when he underwent a root canal.

The reports of threats to Hati added a bizarre wrinkle to the zoo’s management following Konwiser’s death that have included chastising the media for asking questions. The zoo provided no evidence of the threats in its statement, and a spokeswoman for West Palm Beach police could not confirm whether any reports have been filed with her agency regarding threats. Readers commenting on The Post’s website have repeatedly expressed sympathy for the tiger.

“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,” the latest statement read.

But questions remain, foremost among them why the 300-pound tiger that killed Konwiser was tranquilized instead of shot, forcing paramedics to wait until it was safe to enter the enclosure to attend to Konwiser. The lead keeper died after being flown by Trauma Hawk to St. Mary’s Medical Center, 9 miles away.

Furthermore, the employee who called 911 at 1:55 p.m. Friday to report the incident did not tell the dispatcher that the emergency involved an animal mauling for more than a minute and half. A frustrated dispatcher had to coax the caller — who said she wanted to get to her other “job duties” — into giving information.

The zoo remains tight-lipped about details as to how the mauling took place: whether Konwiser was alone or with other staff, if there was a malfunction of a door or if the lead keeper broke protocol.

Konwiser died from wounds she received from the big cat in the “night house,” basically a large kennel for the zoo’s four tigers adjacent to their new exhibit. The lead keeper was doing routine tasks before appearing before the public to give a tiger talk.

Spokeswoman Naki Cater did not return phone calls Tuesday and appears to have stopped responding to questions or holding news conferences after chastising the media Sunday for speculating about the fate of the tiger involved in the death.

“The male Malayan tiger involved in the April 15 incident has never been blamed or identified,” the zoo said Tuesday. “His future has never been in jeopardy. His age has never been divulged. He has never been involved in any other incident at Palm Beach Zoo. The zoo has never had any other animal-related human deaths in its 60-year history.”

The zoo’s statement late Tuesday came after The Post said it would be posting a story on its website on Hati and after it had sought answers to why the zoo earlier had altered a news release on the mauling and deleted another release on the big cat’s arrival.

The zoo changed a line in its news release from Sunday on Konwiser’s death and removed the July 2015 news release about acquiring Hati in July for breeding purposes.

On Sunday, the zoo released the statement that the tiger involved in Konwiser’s death was not in danger of being euthanized. The zoo stated:

“The tiger belongs to the AZA Species Survival Plan, not to the zoo, and is one of 41 males that are carefully matched with 23 females to produce cubs with the greatest possible genetic diversity.”

Shortly after The Post’s inquiry on Tuesday afternoon, the news release read:

“The male Malayan tiger is part of an ongoing breeding program through the AZA. The tiger is one of around 250 Malayan tigers in existence. Four Malayan tigers currently live at Palm Beach Zoo.”

The AZA is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. A spokesman for the industry group did not return a call for comment.

Almost simultaneously, the news release announcing Hati’s arrival was scrubbed from the zoo’s website. The Post, however, found the missing July announcement through Internet search engines and an archival program.

The July release describes Hati as a 12-year-old Malayan tiger as part of a “Species Survival Plan (SSP) through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Zookeepers are hopeful that Hati will mate with Berapi, the Zoo’s female Malayan tiger.”

“We are optimistic Hati will leave a legacy of cubs for us,” said Nancy Nill, associate curator for the zoo in the news release. “Berapi gave birth to three tiger brothers at our zoo in 2011, so we are hopeful that we will once again have more tiger cubs soon.”

The night house was where another incident took place in 2008 when a tiger bit the tip of finger of a zookeeper while she was training the animal. The incident resulted in the banning of palm feeding at the zoo, according to documents obtained by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

In May 2011, a technical worker was injured when a tiger jumped on his back after he entered a restricted area to retrieve a DVD player.