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Grief, questions remain after zookeeper's death

MIAMI — South Florida zoo staffers and friends of a veteran keeper attacked and killed by a Malayan tiger met Saturday morning to mourn her death as investigators sought clues as to what led the tiger to violently turn on his caretaker.

Palm Beach Zoo officials also announced Saturday that the zoo would remained closed over the weekend after the death of Stacey Konwiser, 38, who was killed by the 13-year-old male tiger Friday in an enclosure known as the night house.

Tigers sleep and are fed in the night house, which is not visible to the public, according to zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter.

On Saturday morning, Konwiser's husband, Jeremy, also a Palm Beach Zoo keeper, read a "note of support" to staff, said Carter, who added that the zoo is trying to establish a memorial fund in Konwiser's honor.

"This is a very difficult situation for all Zoo staff, the Konwiser family and her extended Zoo family," a statement from zoo officials said.

Jan Steele, the zoo's general curator, said in a statement that Konwiser was preparing the night house for the evening routine, which includes cleaning and feeding. She was airlifted from the scene.

The tiger was tranquilized, and authorities had to wait until the sedative took effect before they could come to Konwiser's aid, West Palm Beach police spokeswoman Lori Colombino said.

The animal never escaped, and the public was never in danger, the zoo said.

"The zoo has a safety protocol in place for crisis situations and these protocols were employed today. Immediately after the Code Red was issued guests, who were never in any danger, were ushered out of the Zoo in an orderly fashion and the Zoo went into lockdown," Carter said in statement Friday.

It's unclear why the Malayan tiger was not killed, but zoo officials said it is one of only 250 such tigers known to exist in the world.

Carter said the zoo, which has four similar tigers, serves as a "breeding ground to make sure they don't become extinct."

The keeper's death is being investigated by West Palm Beach police, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials and by federal authorities with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund says the zookeeper's death was preventable and urged federal authorities to impose penalties against the zoo.

"As long as employees are allowed to work in dangerously close proximity to tigers, elephants, and other dangerous animals, a significant risk of serious injury or death persists," the California-based group said in a statement.

Since 1990, according to the group, at least 24 deaths— and 265 injuries — were caused by "captive big cats" in the United States. "These attacks, and scenarios where an animal escapes, have also resulted in the deaths of over 128 big cats—many of whom were endangered species," the group said.

Konwiser's death was the first of "a human involved in an animal incident in the 60-year history of the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society," zoo officials said.

Carter, the zoo spokeswoman, said Konwiser was "efficient and proficient" at her job and, on the afternoon of the attack, she said Konwiser was doing her daily chores.

"This was not out of the norm," Carter said. "What occurred was out of the norm."

Konwiser had just accepted a job with the federal government, with a long-term goal of working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Palm Beach Zoo was creating a new position in an effort to persuade her to stay.

Konwiser had been working with tigers at the zoo for three years and was passionate about them, Carter said.

"She loved tigers and they loved her," she said.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Grief, questions remain after zookeeper's death 04/16/16 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2016 8:39pm]
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