TAMPA — A volunteer was bitten and seriously injured by a tiger at Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue sanctuary on Thursday, authorities said.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crews responded to a trauma alert call at the sanctuary at 12802 Easy St. about 8:30 a.m. after a person was bitten by one of the big cats there, said agency spokesman Eric Seidel. Crews took the woman to St. Joseph’s Hospital-North to be treated.
Baskin told the Tampa Bay Times that the injured woman is Candy Couser, a volunteer at Big Cat Rescue for the past five years, who three years ago reached the sanctuary’s training designation as a “Green Level Keeper.”
Couser was feeding a tiger named Kimba when she reached through a door on the cat’s enclosure. The tiger grabbed Couser’s arm and nearly tore it off at the shoulder, Baskin said by email.
“Candy was trying to feed Kimba and realized he was locked out of where his food was,” a volunteer can be heard saying on an audio recording of a Big Cat Rescue staff meeting held after the bite, which was provided to the Times by Baskin.
Baskin’s email said the tiger was locked away from that area because cameras were being installed.
But Baskin said Couser broke sanctuary safety protocol when after opening a “guillotine” door on one end of a tunnel leading into the enclosure, she attempted to open a second door after seeing that it was clipped shut.
A door being clipped shut “is our universal signal NOT to open a gate without the coordinator coming to assist, but Candy said she just wasn’t thinking when she reached in to unclip it,” the email stated. “It is against our protocols for anyone to stick any part of their body into a cage with a cat in it.”
Other volunteers heard the commotion and came running. The tiger let go. One volunteer who is a nurse worked to stop the bleeding, while another used their belt to create a tourniquet. The volunteers packed ice around Couser’s arm, and an ambulance arrived 15 to 20 minutes later, the email said.
“Candy was still conscious and insisted that she did not want Kimba Tiger to come to any harm for this mistake,” the email said.
The tiger will be placed in quarantine for 30 days as a precaution, but Baskin said the tiger’s behavior was normal, and that it was only “acting on the presence of food and the opportunity.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement is investigating, which is standard for incidents like this one involving captive wildlife, said commission spokeswoman Melody Kilborn.
In the recording, a tearful sounding Baskin thanked volunteers for possibly saving Couser’s life.
“I know everybody feels really bad about this, and we all love Candy so much,” she said, but “it’s that kind of instant misjudgment that could cost you guys a limb or life.
“It was a mistake. It was something that never should have been done in an instant of not thinking.”
She also praised the staff for their hard work and reminded them that they only do it “because of these breeders and dealers that are putting these cats out in the public and abusing them.”
Big Cat Rescue is one of only 165 sanctuaries in the country with accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which requires strict policies for care and enclosures, including that sanctuaries do not directly touch the animals.
Kimba is a 3-year-old male tiger that arrived at Big Cat Rescue from Guatemala after the government there banned animal circuses.
Animal Defenders International, the organization that helped facilitate Kimba’s relocation to Tampa, released a statement Thursday stating that reports that Kimba was the tiger involved in a 2018 mauling in Guatemala in which a worker lost both arms are inaccurate.
“The tiger involved in that incident was another male, Itza, who now lives at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa,” the news release stated. “Itza was identified to ADI as the tiger responsible by the government officials who had investigated the incident, as well as the circus owner and staff.”
Kimba was part of a family of 15 tigers removed from brutal conditions in tiny, overcrowded cages, and had been traumatized from beatings in the circus, the organization said.
The sanctuary became widely known after Big Cat Rescue and Baskin were featured in the hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King” that debuted in March.