Gunshot might have saved tiger handler, court told
A big cat handler has told a court how he watched his workmate be mauled to death, saying he would have survived if weapons had been readily available.
The coroner's inquest into the death of Clifford (Dalu) Mncube began at Whangarei District Court yesterday afternoon.
The 26-year-old Zimbabwean-born man was employed by Zion Wildlife Gardens when he was killed by Bengal white tiger Abu on May 27, 2009. Abu had bitten another handler three months earlier.
Mr Mncube moved to New Zealand from South Africa in 2005 and in March 2007 he met Sharon Arnott, to whom he subsequently became engaged and had a child.
But their marriage plans were tragically ended when a routine enclosure cleaning went wrong.
Mr Mncube and colleague Martin Ferreira – the first witness called yesterday – entered the pen to clear it of faeces and bones but almost as soon as they started their work the adult male tiger attacked Mr Mncube.
He was bitten on the leg and despite landing a flurry of punches to the rare white tiger, was pulled to the ground and dragged along by his shoulder.
Mr Ferreira said the senior handler was asking for help but was “really calm” at first.
The situation quickly deteriorated when Abu dragged Mr Mncube from a den box along the fence line.
Though the tiger had been punched, hit with a block of wood and sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher, it was there to “finish the job he started”, Mr Ferreira said.
“He was in killing mode,” he said.
At one stage Mr Mncube's head was completely inside the tiger's mouth with his jaws clamped down on his neck.
“I could hear Abu crushing his head,” Mr Ferreira told the court.
Shortly afterwards, a staff member used a cattle prod on the tiger but it had little effect as he dragged the handler's bloodied body away to the centre of the enclosure.
Counsel for Mr Mncube's fiancee Juliet Golightly asked Mr Ferreira whether a gunshot would have been more effective in helping to free its prey and potentially have saved his life.
“I believe so,” he said.
Staff had met park operator Patricia Busch after Demetri Price was bitten on the leg in February 2009 and voiced concerns for their safety, but she said they were financially constrained, Mr Ferreira said.
“I suggested a Taser because it puts out a bit more force, she said there was no money available and she bought a normal cattle prod."
Though there were firearms on site, he said they were “a fair way away” and in a serious mauling it would take too long to retrieve them.
Abu was eventually shot by Mr Ferreira after Mr Mncube received medical attention.
Ms Golightly's questioning also highlighted the fact there were no official training protocols.
Mr Ferreira said he did not receive any written information when he started at the park and instead learned by following Mr Mncube around.
There was also a suggestion staff were told to change routines when Agriculture and Forestry Ministry officials were present on one of their fortnightly visits.
“I suppose she didn't want MAF to see us cleaning inside the enclosure when the cats were out,” Mr Ferreira said.
Morale among staff before Mr Mncube's death was low with Craig Busch – known as The Lion Man – threatening the Zimbabwean with deportation, he said.
“It wasn't a nice time to work at the park when all the politics were going on – the cats were stressed out in the mornings,” he said.
“Craig would move around the cats at night and staff didn't feel safe because we didn't know what he was up to.”
The inquest is expected to last the rest of the week.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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