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Mauled tiger worker had 'dream job'

A woman mauled to death by a tiger at the wildlife park where she worked was doing her "dream job", her mother has told an inquest.

Sarah McClay, 24, suffered multiple injuries when she was attacked at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, on May 24 last year.

Miss McClay, from Barrow-in-Furness, was going about her routine duties in the big cat enclosure at the park when she came into contact with a male Sumatran tiger.

She was taken by air ambulance to Royal Preston Hospital but later died from her injuries.

Police said at the time of her death that the enclosure concerned consisted of a number of indoor and outdoor compartments connected by lockable doors. Keepers were required to enter various parts of the enclosure in the course of their routine duties.

However, systems were said to be in place to ensure that animals and keepers remained apart at all times.

Speaking on the first day of the inquest, which is being held in front of a jury, Fiona McClay, from Linlithgow,West Lothian, told the hearing in Kendal that her daughter was "a meticulous person to the extreme" who was "settled in her life".

She said Miss McClay had worked as an animal carer at the park for approximately three years.

South Cumbria Coroner Ian Smith asked her what her daughter's attitude was to her occupation.

Mrs McClay replied: "It was a dream job ... I would say ever since she had visited the park as a child."

She had a liking for the "animal world of Great Britain" and did not have "a particular affinity" to big cats but she saw it as "a privilege" to work with them, said Mrs McClay.

Mrs McClay said she had not seen a photograph of her daughter, widely used in the press, with her face painted as a tiger.

She confirmed Miss McClay was in a relationship with her partner, David Shaw, at the time.

Mr Smith asked her: "Were they happy together?" Mrs McClay replied: "Oh very."

She said she believed her daughter did not have any health or money problems.

The coroner asked: "Happy with what she was doing?"

Mrs McClay said: "She was settled in her life."

Asked by Mr Smith about her personality, Mrs McClay said: "She was a meticulous person to the extreme. She would never just do something. She always wanted to do it a little bit better.

"She was a conversational person. She would discuss things and she would be never critical of anyone else and would listen to their point of view."

Speaking about media coverage, which contained calls for the tiger to be killed, Mrs McClay said: "That is absolutely 100 per cent not what Sarah would not have wanted.

"She would not have blamed the tiger for anything what had happened."

A post-mortem examination showed among Glasgow-born Miss McClay's unsurvivable injuries were deep puncture wounds to the neck, the back of her body, both arms and her left foot.

There was crushing to the spine in the neck and at the top of the chest on the right side, along with fractured ribs and underlying injuries to both lungs.

Bruising and abrasions to her head and back were consistent with her being dragged along the ground, the inquest heard.

Reopening the inquest at County Hall, which is scheduled to last up to six days, Mr Smith told the jury of six women and four men that the nature of the case was "extremely unusual".

He told them: "Your job is to decide the facts. To decide what actually happened because it is not altogether clear at this stage."

To aid them a scale model of the tiger house has been made which the jury inspected today.

A short video of the park's tiger house, filmed last June, was also shown in court.

The tiger enclosure - which housed a male and a female Sumatran tiger on the left side and two jaguar big cats and an Amur tiger on the right - consists of a number of compartments both indoor and outdoor connected by lockable doors which all worked independently.

Jurors were told their attention would be focused on the left side of the enclosure.

Within the enclosure was a light den and a dark den for the tigers, and a keeper's corridor.

Keepers were required to enter various parts of the enclosure in the course of their routine duties such as cleaning.

However, systems were in place via sliding metal gates to ensure that animals and keepers remained apart at all times.

Owen Broadhead, a senior environmental health officer with Barrow Borough Council - which licenses the park - told the inquest that he was the first officer from the local authority, responsible for health and safety at work, to attend the scene on the day, along with police.

He told the inquest that a bolt on the top of the dark den door, which opened on to the keeper's corridor, was found to be defective.

He said: "The bolt could not held be back. When it tried to close into the frame (of the door) it would bang against the frame which left a gap of 20 to 25 millimetres.

"If the bolt was working properly it would be held back and would close tightly into the frame."

He agreed with lawyer David Rogers, representing the wildlife park, that his inspection of the door took place some hours after the incident had happened and there had been "quite a lot of activity" in that area previously.

He said he could not say when the damage had occurred.

Mr Broadhead said he visited the park the following week and the bolt was still defective.

The park had a six-year licence and the licensing authority carried out roughly annual inspections, the jury heard.

Mr Broadhead said the council had carried out an inspection on May 20 - four days before the fatality- but it was focused primarly on animal welfare.

He told Mr Rogers that there were no concerns relating to the design of the tiger enclosure or the operating procedures following that inspection.

The coroner told the jury they would hear more detail about the tiger house in due course and would also hear from David Gill, the founder and owner of the park, who was present in court today.

The jury will visit the park tomorrow morning before more evidence is taken later.

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