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Siberian tiger mauls man at feline breeding facility

For Samuel Lee, dishing out dinner to some of the most ferocious felines on earth was no big deal.

"He didn't seem to be afraid of them," said his sister, Willie May Goffrey.

But Lee's work turned disastrous Wednesday.

A 400-pound Siberian tiger named Nitchebo bolted from its apparently unlocked pen and mauled the unsuspecting worker's left leg.

The male cat, a member of an endangered species, was later shot to death by deputies from the Sumter County Sheriff's Office after efforts to tranquilize it failed.

"We didn't want to, but we had to," Chief Deputy Jack Jordan said.

Lee, 44, of nearby Webster was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he was in serious condition Wednesday night.

Hospital spokesman Joe Brown described Lee's condition as serious and painful but was confident his leg would be saved. Lee suffered several puncture wounds and a possible fractured upper leg, Brown said.

Tom Quinn, wildlife inspector for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, made the decision to kill the tiger.

"It posed an immediate threat to the public," Quinn said. "If that animal had gotten out, there's no telling what might have happened."

Nitchebo was one of only about 500 Siberian tigers in captivity worldwide. Only a few hundred of the cats are left in the wild.

The attack occurred on a 40-acre private ranch between Center Hill and Bushnell known as Savage Kingdom, about 50 miles west of Orlando. Owner Robert Baudy breeds big cats and other exotic animals for zoos worldwide.

Baudy was well-known during the early 1950s when his animal acts were regularly showcased on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan brought Baudy to the United States from France 46 years ago.

Baudy, who was away from the compound when Lee was attacked, said it was the first time in 25 years a tiger escaped from its pen. Only 12 of the 60 cats on the jungle-like preserve are deemed dangerous.

He said Lee apparently failed to close a cage door.

"It was a good tiger, but the man made a mistake," Baudy said. "This wouldn't have happened had it not been feeding time. When you raise butterflies, the worst that can happen is they fly away. With tigers, it's different."

Lily Lahman, the ranch's assistant director, said the tiger bolted from the cage and surprised Lee after he threw down meat. Lee ran toward a nearby fenced area for protection but didn't make it.

When other employees of the breeding compound 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.

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

"It was a big cat," he said.

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.

Baudy has had several close calls with his cats himself.

A Florida panther named Uno tried to take his arm off once when Baudy entered the animal's cage to remove a collar from the cat. Workers nearby beat the animal off with shovels.

Baudy has run into other scrapes with his operation. In 1984, he was suspended from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, the national organization that accredits zoos and marine exhibits.

He blamed the suspension on the Syracuse Zoo for shipping him a pair of jaguars without warning. The male cat was hostile, and the cage the cats arrived in was so damaged that Baudy was afraid they might escape.

After failing twice to tranquilize the male with an injecting pole, Baudy shot both.

Baudy also gained recognition for breeding the endangered Florida panther, although the purity of their bloodlines was disputed by the state game commission.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.