Youngster makes it into tiger keepers' enclosure

Youngster enters tiger keepers' enclosure

PHIL KITCHIN
Last updated 05:00 29/05/2014
Rokan the tiger
MARK ROUND/Fairfax NZ
WILD AT HEART: Sumatran tiger Rokan chews on an animal bone in this file photograph. Last week he rushed at the mesh fence around his enclosure when he saw a child in the supposedly secure keeper's area.

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An investigation has begun at Wellington Zoo after a primary school child got into a supposedly secure keepers' area used for hand-feeding a tiger.

The incident was reported to the zoo's managers after the tiger, Rokan, rushed at the mesh fence used to protect its keepers during hand-feeding.

The keeper was not there at the time, and it is not known how the child got into the enclosed area.

"We are not sure how the incident occurred, and we are taking it very seriously," a zoo spokeswoman said.

It was not known whether there was more than one child involved, but the zoo had been told Rokan "rushed up to the fence", alarming at least one child.

The zoo has alerted two government agencies to the latest safety failure. A zoo spokeswoman said an internal inquiry had begun.

While the investigation was carried out, Rokan's keeper had been stood down from duties with dangerous animals but was still working at the zoo, she said.

The investigation will look into how a gate into the secured area used for hand-feeding the 17-year-old Sumatran tiger was left unlocked during a school visit last Wednesday.

The spokeswoman said no zoo staff witnessed the incident, and the child did not get past the mesh fence separating the keepers' area from the tiger.

It is not the first time an unlocked gate has prompted an investigation into safety at the zoo - eight years ago the zoo's senior lion-keeper was mauled when another gate was not locked.

Rokan has been involved in a previous incident, in 2003, when a committed mental health patient climbed a six-metre fence, dropped into Rokan's enclosure and was pounced upon and severely mauled.

It is understood that, in the latest incident, a teacher or parent called the child away as it approached the mesh and Rokan rushed towards the other side of the fence.

The area in question is in front of the tiger enclosure and is used by Rokan's keeper to give talks to zoo visitors and to hand-feed the tiger through "thick mesh".

The secure area not only allows the public to see hand-feeding but enables zoo staff to keep a closer eye on the tiger's medical condition.

The spokeswoman confirmed the central question that would be investigated was how the gate into the area was left unlocked.

She did not know how long the investigation would take.

Because no-one was injured, WorkSafe NZ, formerly Occupational Safety and Health, did not need to be notified, she said.

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ROKAN WAS NOT AMUSED BY INTRUDER 

Horrified visitors, including schoolchildren, watched as Rokan mauled a man who had got into his enclosure in 2003.

The 29-year-old mental health patient climbed a six-metre fence to get into the enclosure. Zoo staff had to blast Rokan with water hoses to get him off the man, who suffered serious head injuries and nearly died.

Rokan is one of the zoo's main attractions and is part of an international breeding programme. There are only an estimated 300 to 400 sumatran tigers left in the wild.

In another incident at Wellington Zoo, senior lion-keeper Bob Bennett needed hospital treatment after being mauled by two young lions in 2006, when he failed to lock a gate between the den and the enclosure he was in.

Bennett was mauled for about five minutes before the two-year-old lions were distracted and he got away. His wounds required skin grafts.

A report by OSH (now WorkSafe NZ) found Bennett mainly at fault for failing to double-check the gate was locked.

The report said the incident was a timely reminder to those people working in zoos that they were dealing with unpredictable and wild animals.

- The Dominion Post

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