Kansas zoo investigates animal handling after tiger attacks worker

"We thought safety was our No. 1 focus."

Kristyn Hayden-Ortega. –The Topeka Zoo via AP

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas zoo is investigating its animal-handling protocols after a Sumatran tiger seriously injured a veteran zookeeper, and its director acknowledged Tuesday that human error probably led to the attack.

The Topeka Zoo has “100% confidence” that no problem with the tiger’s enclosure caused the attack Saturday on 40-year-old Kristyn Hayden-Ortega, Director Brendan Wiley said. She suffered puncture wounds and lacerations to her head, neck and back and remains hospitalized, though Wiley said her condition appears to be improving after she was moved Sunday out of intensive care.

Zoo officials said Hayden-Ortega went Saturday morning into the open part of the enclosure for a 7-year-old tiger named Sanjiv to clean it. The animal was supposed to be secured in an enclosed area but wasn’t and tackled the zookeeper as several visitors watched.

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“We thought safety was our No. 1 focus,” Wiley told reporters during a news conference. “What happened Saturday morning, I think, shows that it wasn’t, and we’re going to rework processes so that things like that can’t happen again.”

Sanjiv. —Chris Neal / The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP, File

The Animal Plant Health Inspection Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that it is looking into the incident.

The Kansas Department of Labor plans to send a consultant to the zoo Thursday to review its written health and safety protocols and file a report by early next week, spokeswoman Julie Menghini said.

Also, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ accreditation committee will examine the incident with the Topeka Zoo to determine how future incidents could be prevented, spokesman Rob Vernon said.

“There only should be a zookeeper in that space when that tiger is secured in an inside area,” Wiley said.

The zoo struggled to maintain its accreditation between 2001 and 2012 because of management and animal health issues. The city paid a $45,000 fine over a USDA complaint alleging dozens of violations of its regulations.

But the USDA’s inspection service inspected the zoo five times in the past three years and “found no non-compliances,” spokesman R. Andre Bell said in an email.

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Wiley said three co-workers came to Hayden-Ortega’s aid after being notified by a volunteer working outside the tiger’s enclosure. It’s not clear to zoo officials whether the volunteer saw the tiger tackle the zookeeper, and Wiley said he has yet to speak to Hayden-Ortega.

Two state game wardens staffing an Earth Day table also helped provide first aid. They arrived at the tiger enclosure after the attack but while the animal still stood over the zookeeper, said Ron Kaufman, a spokesman for the Kansas parks department.

Hayden-Ortega has been a zoo employee since 2001 and has worked regularly with the tigers. She is the president of the Topeka chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

“She’s one of our most experienced keepers,” Simpson said. “She’s an excellent trainer for the animals and our staff.”

Zoo officials said the tigers are solitary and Sanjiv mostly likely only reacted to someone else being in his territory. The animal weighs 275 pounds and is more than 6 feet long.

Wiley said the tiger didn’t appear to be “angry,” and Shanna Simpson, the assistant zoo curator who oversees its tigers, called him an “all-around great cat” who had been relatively easy to work with.

The tiger is back on display, and Wiley said there never was any discussion about euthanizing him after the attack — though zoo employees had been prepared to shoot the animal if they had not been able to lure him away from Hayden-Ortega by displaying a food bucket and calling to him.

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Wiley said the global population of Sumatran tigers numbers only in the hundreds so that, “the genetics are so valuable.”

“But more than that, the tiger did nothing wrong,” Wiley said. “The tiger was just simply being a tiger.”

Sanjiv came to the Topeka Zoo in August 2017 from a zoo in Akron, Ohio. He has fathered four cubs that live in a separate enclosure.

The Topeka Zoo, in the city’s largest park, opened in the 1930s and has a staff of between 140 and 150 people, including about 35 full-time employees.

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Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, and Roxana Hegeman, in Wichita, contributed to this report.