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Florida zookeeper was preparing the tiger night house, then tragedy struck

Staff at Florida's Palm Beach Zoo mourned the zoo's lead keeper, who was killed by an endangered tiger. (Video: Reuters)

UPDATE: The Palm Beach Zoo on Sunday said the tiger that attacked its keeper will remain with the zoo.

Stacey Konwiser was making moves.

She had just accepted a new job with the federal government, with a long-term goal of working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Palm Beach Zoo, where she was lead keeper, was creating a new position in an effort to persuade her to stay.

But that all came crashing down on Friday, when Konwiser, 38, died following an attack that afternoon by one of the tigers she cared for. The animal-involved fatality — the first in the West Palm Beach, Fla., zoo’s 60-year history — occurred in the “tiger night house,” an area out of view of the public in the back of the tiger exhibit.

“Konwiser was preparing the night house for the evening routine, which includes cleaning and feeding,” Jan Steele, the zoo’s general curator, said in a statement. She was airlifted from the scene.

The animal never escaped, and the public was never in danger, the zoo said.

“The Zoo has a safety protocol in place for crisis situations and these protocols were employed today. Immediately after the Code Red was issued guests, who were never in any danger, were ushered out of the Zoo in an orderly fashion and the Zoo went into lockdown,” spokeswoman Naki Carter said Friday in statement.

The West Palm Beach Police Department and West Palm Beach Fire Department EMS were first to respond. The zoo said it is now working with the police, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and Occupational Safety and Health Administration as the investigation continues.

Zoo management met with staff early Saturday to mourn Konwiser’s death. At that meeting, her husband, Jeremy, also a keeper at the zoo, read a note of support. Staff were provided access to grief counselors, and the zoo is working with Konwiser’s family to establish a memorial fund.

“Our focus remains on providing adequate support for our staff and family members who have been affected by this tragic incident,” Steele said in the statement.

The male Malayan tiger that attacked her was tranquilized following the incident and has since recovered from that shot. The zoo has four such tigers, according to its website, and it intends to keep the tiger involved in the attack, it said on Sunday.

A rare and endangered breed, the Malayan tigers’s numbers are exceedingly small. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ranks it as “critically endangered” — one step above “extinct in the wild” — based on a recent estimate that fewer than 250 mature individuals are in the wild. Such tigers are found only in the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia and the southern tip of Thailand, according to the World Wildlife Fund.