WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A New Zealand zookeeper was killed Sunday by a Sumatran tiger on a weekend morning when the zoo was open to visitors.
Police said they were called to the Hamilton Zoo at 11 a.m. after reports a female zookeeper had been attacked by one of the zoo’s five tigers. Police said the woman died at the scene, and zoo asked all visitors to leave and close its doors until Thursday.
Authorities are investigating to determine exactly what happened.
Zoo visitor Adam Rich told The New Zealand Herald newspaper he saw the tigers about 45 minutes to one hour before the zoo was evacuated, and noticed a zookeeper opening up a gate to allow them access to an outdoor enclosure.
He said zoo staff later approached him and asked him to leave. He said they were offering everyone a refund.
“They seemed a bit panicky,” he told the newspaper. “I thought an animal had escaped but they guaranteed that an animal did not escape.”
The zoo is owned and operated by the Hamilton City Council.
Council spokesman Jeff Neems said the tiger that attacked the woman is named Oz and is the zoo’s only adult male tiger.
He said Oz was currently safely contained inside his enclosure. He said he had no comment on whether the animal was likely to be put down.
He said the public was never in danger during the incident and that all animals had remained contained in their enclosures.
“Our focus at this time is on providing the adequate support for our staff and family members who have been affected by this tragic incident,” the council said in a statement, adding that they would not be commenting on what went wrong until all investigations had been completed.
Neems said the zoo has 128,000 visitors each year, making it about the fourth most popular in the country. He said he didn’t know how many visitors were at the zoo during the incident. He said the weather was wet and cold at the time.
The zoo states on its website that its home to over 600 native and exotic animals set on 25 hectares (62 acres) of lush grounds.
Sumatran tigers are considered critically endangered, with less than 400 of the tiger subspecies still living in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.