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Siberian tiger mauls handler at feline breeding compound

Published Oct. 1, 2005

A 400-pound Siberian tiger mauled its handler Wednesday, mangling the man's left leg. After attempts to tranquilize the tiger failed, law officers using high-powered rifles killed the animal.

Samuel James Lee, 44, of Webster was in serious but stable condition after surgery at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Lee suffered puncture wounds and his left femur is broken, hospital spokesman Joe Brown said.

"(The tiger) decided he was playing cat and mouse with Sam, and Sam was the mouse," said Sandy Green, a volunteer at Savage Kingdom, a rare feline breeding compound near Center Hill, 50 miles west of Orlando. "The cat was probably just messing with Sam like they do with each other."

Witnesses said Lee was preparing to feed the tigers when the incident occurred Wednesday afternoon. Green said Lee forgot to close a sliding door that keeps the tigers in a cage while handlers throw beef into their dens.

When the 4-year-old cat heard Lee throw down the meat, it burst out of the cage and surprised him. Lee ran toward a nearby fenced area for protection.

He almost made it.

"The cat grabbed him going over the fence," Green said. "His leg was, like, dangling and his foot was facing the wrong way."

Witnesses said the tiger bit and clawed Lee's leg, then let go and sat down.

When other employees of the breeding compound, which is not open to public, heard Lee's screams they drove to him in a truck. While one person threw the tiger more meat to keep it at bay, others got him onto the truck. Then the trucks got stuck.

It took nearly an hour for agents from the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to arrive. With Sumter County sheriff's officers assisting, Lee was transported by helicopter to the Orlando hospital.

The rules governing the amounts and types of cages differ if the park is open to the public. Savage Kingdom is a private facility, but there were still at least three fences for the tiger to get through before it could have escaped. The tiger apparently made it through two and was killed before it could get past a perimeter fence.

"Fish and Game did not want to hurt the animal," Sumter County sheriff Chief Jack Jordan said. "After they shot him with a dart, he broke and ran . . . they shot six rounds."

Jordan called Lee's rescue an act of bravery by officers and employees.

"It was a big cat," he said.

_ Information from the Leesburg Daily Commercial was used in this report.