Life can change in the blink of an eye
By every account, trainer Stacy Konwiser knew exactly what she was doing. As the head keeper of tigers at the Palm Beach Zoo, she was experienced with her veterinarian job and she was familiar with the protocols that were used to keep both people and animals as safe as possible. When she was attacked fatally, she was in an area of the zoo that was known as the “tiger night house“. As the investigation determined, this area was clearly marked as an area to which a tiger had access.
The incident wasn’t an issue of whether or not the Palm Beach Zoo had enough standards in place. The zoo does, and those standards state that a zookeeper should not be in an area to which a tiger has active access. The keeper shouldn’t have been in the enclosure at the time that she was attacked, yet she was.
The question then becomes, why was she in the enclosure? One can only assume it was a mistake or an oversight, but we’ll never know. She was aware of the dangers of working with large animals. She was the author of the current protocols in place. And therefore, she would know that entering an enclosure with a loose tiger could lead to this type of attack.
I once had the experience of touring a tiger sanctuary here in San Diego and visiting these creatures, within the boundaries that are typically set aside for zookeepers. The tiger decided to come right up to the fence, and it jumped up on the fence. I had only the chain link fence between the tiger and myself. I have never felt so tiny in my entire life. No one with any sense of self-preservation would intentionally put themselves near a tiger without some sort of protection. While magnificent, they’re also brutal.
When Konwiser was attacked by the tiger, the zoo had to make an immediate decision about whether to shoot the tiger involved with tranquillizers or with lethal bullets. They chose the tranquillizers. This decision was based on several factors, including the risk of greater injury to the zookeeper or to other people from bullets ricocheting. Also, this was one of only 250 Malayan tigers left in the world. The tiger was not doing anything anyone would not expect. He was in his own area, doing his natural behaviours. When an opportunity presented itself, he did what a tiger would naturally do.
Unfortunately, there’s no correct answer as to the zoo’s decision. If one were to ask a person as dedicated to tigers as Konwiser was whether an animal needed to die based on a mistake a human made, I would venture that her answer might be “no”. The tiger is still alive and the zoo has no plans to change that in the immediate future.
Konwiser’s horrible death is a wake-up call to those of us who do dangerous things on a daily basis, whether it’s working with dangerous predators or things as simple as driving to the grocery store or a daily commute. We live with important rules and regulations. Lock the doors! Buckle your seatbelt! Don’t text and drive! These rules are meant to keep us safe, but all too often we let the slip or ignore them completely. When rules become guidelines instead of hard, fast rules that are followed every time, mistakes can and will happen.
These mistakes can be deadly, and good people may pay a high price.