Nagging questions on tiger attack

It was already dark and foggy at the San Francisco Zoo at closing time Christmas Day. And still emerging from the murk is a full understanding of what really happened when a 4-year-old female tiger suddenly escaped from her outdoor enclosure to kill one San Jose youth and severely maul two others before being shot to death by police.

The Examiner refrained from commenting on this bloody tragedy until sufficient facts became clear. But now at least there seems agreement about the general outline of events, although many key details will apparently remain unknown until the surviving two witnesses, now released from S.F. General Hospital, undergo police interrogation.

Probably the most perplexing mystery of the rampage was solved Thursday when Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo admitted the outer wall of the Tiger Grotto was only 12 ½ feet high instead of the 16, 18 or 20 feet high that was previously claimed. This made it far more likely that a full-grown tiger — if sufficiently agitated — could jump and scramble over the barrier. And Tatiana was known to be a particularly aggressive tiger, having badly injured a zookeeper’s arm during a routine feeding only one year ago.

As it gradually became established that the tiger’s three victims were friends visiting the zoo together, it also became clearer why the tiger specifically attacked persons separated by some 300 yards: The big cat simply followed the blood trail from the first fatal attack directly in front of its enclosure.

By last weekend, the 18-page police radio log of the incident had been released, revealing a confused and near-chaotic early-stage response. Zoo employees initially suspected that some mentally unstable person was inventing a fake attack report. Fire Department paramedics, police and zookeeper search groups with tranquilizer guns had no centralized means of communicating with each other.

Public safety personnel were locked out of the zoo for precious moments, and medics hesitated to enter while an unknown number of tigers were still at large. Visitor evacuation warnings were haphazard, because the zoo removed its public address loudspeakers years ago due to neighbor complaints about noise. The New York Times quoted the zoo director as claiming police had confiscated the tranquilizer guns for some reason, although that report remains unconfirmed elsewhere.

Yet despite the frustrating confusion on-scene, within 19 minutes after the first escape report the tiger had been killed while starting to attack one of the two survivors again. All the police, firefighters and zoo personnel who went bravely into the darkness of a weakly lit 125-acre zoo to search for prowling tigers and injured victims deserve high praise for their courage.

At this point, we are left with the tragic deaths of a 17-year-old male and a beautiful, endangered Siberian tiger, plus the grisly bite-and-claw wounds of two other young men who so far have remained strangely silent about how and why their friend died.

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