Big cats return to grottoes at San Francisco Zoo

Fifty-four days after a Siberian tiger escaped her grotto at the San Francisco Zoo, killing a young man and mauling his two friends, the big cats once again roamed their enclosures.

Trainers on Sunday released the zoo’s seven remaining lions and tigers from quarantine, where they had been held since the incident.

The four lions and three tigers patrolled the habitat, smelling and marking territory with new scents, to familiarize themselves with the grotto, zoo officials said.

Animal experts at the zoo looked for unusual behavior from the big cats such as excess pacing and inability to rest to indicate stress and anxiety, said Bob Jenkins, director of Animal Care and Conservation at the zoo.

“What they’re exhibiting is their normal behavior,” Jenkins said, as lions and tigers stretched and roared in the background. Jenkins said the zoo hoped to reopen the grottoes to the public by the end of this week with public feedings potentially resuming next week.

The event marked the near completion of safety improvements to the grottoes, which cost The City an estimated $1.7 million, according to Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Rose Dennis.

It was discovered that the concrete barrier was less than 13-feet tall, when the minimum height suggested by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is 16 feet 4 inches.

The new barrier with added glass panes and wire-meshing brings the height to at least 19 feet from the bottom of the moat, and a “hot wire” with 8,000 volts of electricity running through it — no watts, zoo officials emphasized — lines the barrier separating the viewing public from the big cats.

When the improvements are complete, the hot wire will rim the perimeter, and stainless-steel mesh will replace the current chain-link fencing to better resist the natural salinity of the air caused by the zoo’s proximity to the ocean, Jenkins said.

Since the attack, the remaining felines have been indoors, entertained by movies such as “The Lion King” and hay of various scents. Jenkins said the big cats enjoyed hay scented with cheap perfume the most.

On Christmas Day, 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. was fatally mauled after reportedly distracting Tatiana, a Siberian tiger, away from his friend Paul Dhaliwal, 19, whom she was attacking after she escaped. She later mauled 23-year-old Kulbir Dhaliwal, Paul’s brother, as the two waited for emergency help.

dsmith@examiner.com

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