A zoo's practice of cleaning enclosures with the animals still in them proved fatal for a senior big cat handler.
Coroner Brandt Shortland found Clifford Dalu Mncube died of suffocation and a vasovagal reflex (similar to choking) when a white tiger named Abu mauled him in front of a group of tourists and a fellow handlers Zion Wildlife Gardens on May 27, 2009.
Other wildlife parks with big cats isolated and secured their big cats while cleaning enclosures, but Zion allowed theirs to roam freely, Shortland said.
Mncube and fellow worker Martin Ferreira were cleaning the white tiger enclosure when Abu approached Mncube from behind and bit him on his right leg.
Abu was a hand-raised tiger but had a history of attacking staff.
At first Mncube thought this was a playful act but when Abu did not let go he realised he was in extreme danger.
A colleague who was leading a tour heard him call out to Ferreira "help me Martin, I'm in trouble".
Mncube, the most experienced big cat handler at the park, did not panic as Abu tried to drag him into a small enclosure, the report said.
Ferreira tried desperately to get Abu to release Mncube by punching and hitting him while trying to keep the other tiger, Rewa, away from the incident.
Mncube said to Ferreira "this is serious mate, just help me please".
The group tourists saw the attack as the third staff member went to help the pair.
He blasted Abu in the face with a fire extinguisher to no avail. He then radioed a "code red" alert to the rest of the staff who rushed to the scene.
By this time the animal had dragged Mncube back out into the enclosure and staff were continuing to blast it with the fire extinguisher and poke it in the face with a cattle prod.
Abu released Mncube for a time but started to bite him on the head and neck.
Ferreira said he could hear the bones crunching. As this point Ferreira knew Mncube was most likely dead as there was much blood at the scene.
Abu released Mncube and walked away, allowing staff to extricate the handler. He was pronounced dead by ambulance staff shortly after.
Abu was shot three times from outside the cage. The gun was then handed to Ferreira, who shot Abu twice in the shoulder and two more times in the head, eventually killing him.
Shortland said shooting the animal was appropriate under the circumstances and acknowledged the bravery of Ferreira.
Park operator Glen Holland considered Mncube the best cat handler he had ever seen.
Holland was appointed operator of the park in 2008 during a bitter management dispute between owners Patricia Busch and her son Craig.
He told the inquest that he was staggered by how much unprotected contact with big cats there was at Zion.
He immediately put in place a two-person cleaning process and was trying to implement rules to contain the big cats while their enclosures were being cleaned.
Specialist veterinary adviser Dr Barry Ward said in evidence that a lot of work was needed at Zion to improve the safety standards but the park was adequate under law at the time of Mncube's death.
Under the law big cats have to be confined during cleaning, unless a senior handler grants discretion to allow them to roam around, which Mncube did.
Shortland recommended regulatory reform and new legislation for health and safety in zoos and animal parks.
- © Fairfax NZ News