Zoo's Jaguar Mauls Worker Cleaning Den

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Authorities are trying to figure out how a 200-pound jaguar managed to slip through a steel gate at a Frederick County zoo Sunday morning and attack a zookeeper while she was cleaning out his den.

Deborah Gregory, 32, of Severn, who is in charge of the big cats at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, was severely injured in the attack, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police said. She was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. A Frederick County animal control official described her condition as serious but stable immediately after the mauling. The 13-year-old black jaguar named Diego, one of two jaguars at the zoo, was being kept in isolation yesterday. Zoo officials said he would not be harmed.

Gregory was doing routine work in the interior area of the jaguars' den before 11 a.m. when Diego pounced, biting Gregory on the face and torso before a colleague who heard her cries fended off the animal by spraying him with a fire extinguisher, police said. The second jaguar, a female, was poised to enter the enclosure when Gregory's colleague arrived.

Usually, the jaguars are locked in their outside habitat while their den is being cleaned. Officials have not determined why the door to the den was open. Several agencies, including the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health department and the Maryland State Police, are investigating the incident.

Frederick County's director of animal control inspected the door yesterday and found no mechanical problems.

"In my inspection today of the safeguards, it would appear that the door cannot be opened with the safeguards in place," Harold Domer Jr. said. Animal control officials said there are no video cameras in the cages.

As of yesterday afternoon, neither Domer nor zoo officials had interviewed Gregory about the mauling. "We can't yet say what happened specifically at 11 a.m., because when we arrived she was being treated, and obviously the number one concern was her medical treatment."

Zoo officials yesterday said they were stunned and saddened by the incident, the first of its kind since the zoo, which is owned by the Hahn family, was founded in 1933. Richard Hahn, the executive director, said in an e-mail yesterday that Gregory was a new hire who had worked with big cats before joining the zoo staff, and had received additional training while at the zoo.

"Everyone here is saddened by the accident," Hahn wrote. "We are praying for the complete recovery of our fellow worker and trying hard to focus on the job at hand."

Of Diego's fate, he added: "We consider all the animals here to be in a protected environment. They will not be harmed."

Jaguars are known for their strong jaws. Unlike cheetahs and other big cats that chase down their prey, jaguars typically lie in wait and pounce, relying on their daggerlike teeth and muscular bite to kill their prey, sometimes hard-shelled tortoises and turtles.

Diego is one of seven big cats at the zoo, which includes about 450 animals and encompasses more than 35 acres in Thurmont, about an hour north of Washington.

Domer said the zoo is well run and that the county has not had problems with the facility. The zoo is closed for the winter and reopens in March.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this story.

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