By the time the other zookeepers got to the tiger enclosure, screaming and throwing pieces of meat as a distraction, it was too late.
Rosa King, a zookeeper at Hamerton Zoo Park, 80 miles north of London, had gotten trapped in the “Land of the Tiger” enclosure with at least one of the zoo’s big cats, according to local police and the zoo.
“We could see staff members on the other side of the fence with pieces of meat trying to get attention,” visitor Victoria Northover Holmes said in a public Facebook post. She said she was near the exhibit snapping pictures when zookeepers told her family to run.
Fearing an animal was loose, they ducked into an office. From there, they watched zoo employees trying in vain to rescue their colleague. “It was heartbreaking seeing (other zookeepers) trying to help,” she wrote.
The zoo called King’s death a “freak accident,” involving a woman who had been a keeper at the zoo for 14 years. Authorities and the zoo have not detailed how King and the tiger came to be in the same space at the same time. They also have not identified the tiger that killed her or said what will happen to it.
“We are sorry but our staff are too distressed to speak directly to the media, as one of our colleagues was killed,” the zoo said in a news release.
The incident happened about 11 a.m. Monday, an hour after the zoo opened on Spring Bank Holiday, when many businesses and government offices in the United Kingdom are closed.
Police received a report of a “serious incident” at the zoo. Twenty minutes later, a medical helicopter landed to fly a grievously injured King away.
Most visitors were calmly escorted out of the zoo by park personnel. Closer to “Land of the Tiger,” visitors saw zookeepers’ panic and furtive rescue efforts.
Pete Davis, another visitor, told the Telegraph he’d seen a female keeper sprint into the tiger enclosure, running to the aid of a shouting colleague.
“There’s no doubting it was a girl’s scream and something terrible had happened. It sounds like a tiger turned on her,” he said.
” … They ushered us away to another building where they made us stay for around ten minutes, but you could see the keepers with their heads in their hands.”
More information trickled out about King, who was from Chippenham, in Wiltshire, according to the BBC. The Associated Press reported that she was 34, although some outlets list her age as 33. Pictures circulating on the Internet showed her posing with various big cats. In most, a sturdy fence separates her from the animals.
The tigers are the largest carnivores housed at the 25-acre zoo, which also has a collection of wolves, smaller felines and kangaroos, according to its website.
King’s mother, Andrea King, told the BBC that caring for the large cats was “what [King] had always loved. … She wouldn’t have done anything else, it’s what she has always done.”
In a statement on Facebook, wildlife photographer Garry Chisholm wrote that King had tried to raise money for the zoo’s big cats, including her favorites — Ares the cheetah, and Blizzard and Ladybelle, “her beloved tigers.”
“Rosa wasn’t just a keeper at Hamerton Zoo — she WAS Hamerton Zoo,” Chisholm wrote. “Her passion for the animals in her care was exceptional though her favourites were undoubtedly the cheetahs which she would refer to as her pride and joy.”
Chisholm declined to comment for this story, telling The Washington Post in a Facebook message that he “would now like to be able to reflect and remember Rosa in privacy.”
The death of King has reignited a global conversation about zoos, deadly animals and safety.
Across the world, for example, people were clamoring to know whether the tiger that killed King would be killed. And similar incidents across the world have turned a microscope on zoos and parks that house the apex predators.
Last spring, 38-year-old zookeeper Stacey Konwiser was killed while preparing the “night house” at the Palm Beach Zoo. The house is where the animals are cleaned and fed, then boarded overnight.
“Stacey understood the dangers that come with this job,” a spokeswoman said following her death. “She had a passion for this job. That’s the only reason that you become a keeper. She understood that every single day, she was putting her life at risk to save the lives of others — and to save the lives specifically, of Malayan tigers.”
And last summer at Beijing Safari World, a woman was injured and her mother killed after the younger woman got out of their car and was dragged off by a tiger.
The mother was attacked and killed by a second tiger.
Hamerton Zoo Park made headlines a decade ago when a 3-year-old cheetah escaped, possibly via a faulty electrical fence. It came face-t0-face with 9-year-old Toby Taylor, who was playing in his family’s back yard. He ran into the house and was unharmed.
The incidents illustrate that captive big cats are dangerous animals that can’t turn off their predatory instincts, experts say.
“These accidents happen, you know, on some kind of a recurring basis around the world,” Doug Cress, CEO of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, told The Post. “And it’s because you’re dealing with animals that, at their genetic core, are built differently than we might like them to be. They are designed to be wild animals.”
Cress said security breakdowns like the one in Britain “will inevitably occur, based on odds and logic,” and that in addition to thorough safety protocols, modern zoos need to be in sync with conservation efforts.
“The end game is to protect the natural world,” he said. “If we’re not, we’re just amusement.”
Tigers are dangerous even to people who’ve been dealing with them for years, said Susan Bass, the director of public relations at Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for more than 80 tigers, lions, bobcats and cougars.
“They’re the ultimate predator, and they’re hard-wired to go after and eat meat. People are meat,” Bass told The Post. “And they’re bored silly in zoos. They’re supposed to be roaming hundreds of miles, so they’re constantly looking for ways to get out.”
The group produced a video about them: “Never Turn Your Back on Big Cats.”
When the man in the video was watching the animals, they were calm and sedate. But when his attention was diverted, the animals went into stalk mode, slowly creeping toward him or even slamming into the gate while pouncing.
It’s impossible to be vigilant all the time, Bass said, and an inattentive moment can be deadly, even for an experienced keeper.
“A lot of times it seems, if you’ve got someone, such as this zookeeper, who’s been there for 14 years, they start getting complacent,” Bass said.
“That’s dangerous, too. Sometimes there are keepers that start to get a false sense of ‘this is my friend.’ You love the tiger, but the tiger does not have the same feeling back. They may even like you, and be happy to see you. But given the chance, they’ll attack.”
This post has been updated.