Tragedy mars Christmas for three

I was in my early 20s before I first visited a zoo.

The San Diego Zoo was impressive with its wide assortment of animals, and I put my old Polaroid camera to good use. I took many photos and one I have to this day that I treasure is the wide-eyed look on a little boy's face reflected in the glass of an enclosure for a python. I surmised he was glad the huge snake could not get out, as it might come after him.

Three young men went to the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day. They could not have imagined the fate that would befall them. It was just after closing time and some people, including three from San Jose, had not yet exited the zoo. Tatiana, a 300-pound female Siberian tiger, had escaped from her pen and was roaming freely in the darkness.

Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, encountered Tatiana and was quickly killed. The cat then attacked two brothers, ages 19 and 23. They suffered bite and claw wounds to their heads, necks, arms and hands but are recovering in a hospital.

While they are survivors, you can bet they will suffer nightmares for a long time to come.

Responding police officers fatally shot Tatiana with their handguns when the big cat began advancing toward them.

Robert Jenkins, the zoo's director of animal care and conservation, was at a loss to explain how the tiger escaped its enclosure, which is surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat and 20-foot-high walls.

Evidently, new measurements taken after the tragedy revealed the wall height actually is 12-1/2 feet. That is below the height of 16.4 feet recommended for tiger exhibit walls by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the main accrediting agency for the nation's zoos, according to an Associated Press story.

San Francisco Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo said AZA safety inspectors never voiced concern over the wall's height during a visit three years ago.

A photo of the enclosure appearing on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times further shows a tree near the moat. Could Tatiana have climbed it and used a branch as a springboard to freedom?

Tatiana also attacked a female zookeeper on Dec. 22, 2006, reaching through the cage's iron bars and lacerating one of her arms. The California Division of Occupation Safety and Health imposed an $18,000 fine on the zoo for that incident.

You can bet the cost for last week's multiple attacks will be much higher for the zoo once the victims and their families have their day in court and lawsuits are settled.

There is speculation that Sousa taunted Tatiana earlier by sitting atop the wall to her enclosure and dangling his legs over it. Whether that suspicion has any validity will be determined as part of a criminal investigation conducted by San Francisco Police to ascertain if human carelessness was responsible or if someone made it possible for the escape.

If it is found young Sousa taunted the cat, does that absolve the zoo from liability? If true, did he deserve to forfeit his life?

No is the answer to both questions.

If Tatiana did indeed get over a wall just 12-1/2 feet high, that strikes me as negligence on the part of the zoo in not being up to accreditation standards.

Would you go to such a zoo, even if there was just a 1-in-1,000 chance of a predator escaping from confinement? I would not.

There undoubtedly is a lesson about security measures to be learned from this tragedy.

It's a shame that a human life was lost, two others were seriously injured and a magnificent wild animal following its instincts died to impart what message may be learned.