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Tiger 'tore through' enclosure door

A tiger "tore through" the door of an enclosure which had a defective bolt and then "pounced" on a zoo keeper, a witness told an inquest today.

Sarah McClay, 24, was attacked in the keepers' corridor and dragged by the back of her neck into the tiger's den.

A visitor to South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, described the moment he saw the tiger walk through the door and on to the corridor as Miss McClay had her back turned.

A jury sitting in Kendal, Cumbria, has heard that systems were place in to ensure that animals and keepers remained apart at all times through indoor and outdoor compartments connected by lockable doors.

Within the tiger enclosure was a light den and a dark den for the tiger which keepers were required to enter in the course of routine duties such as cleaning.

Yesterday the inquest heard that a bolt on the top of the dark den door, which opened on to the keepers' corridor, was found to be defective in the hours following her death on May 24 last year but it could not be said when the damage occurred.

An environmental health officer told the jury that the bolt could not be held back and it would bang against the frame when it tried to close, which left a gap of between 20mm and 25mm.

Gareth Bell, 34, from Newcastle, who was visiting the park with his wife Mary, 33, and their young children on the day of the attack, described what he saw through the viewing windows of the tiger house.

He said he saw a tiger move through an internal sliding gate which linked the light den to the dark den.

Then he moved to another window and saw a zoo keeper with her back to him, putting down a bucket near the slide controls next to the light den door.

In "a split second" the tiger moved through the door of the adjoining dark den which led on to the corridor, he said.

He said: "I saw it coming through the door. It tore through. It just walked straight through.

"It walked past her first because she was in the corner and it turned to get her.

"She turned around and started. She was not expecting it to be there.

"It turned and pounced. That is when I shouted for help.

"When I looked back I looked where she was. The tiger had her by the back of her neck. It was dragging her back into the (dark) den."

He said he turned away again to call for assistance and when he looked back the door to the dark den had shut.

Mr Bell said he went to the far viewing window and looked into the light den where all he could see was an arm coming out of a sliding gate which led to the dark den.

He told Paul Rogers, representing the wildlife park, that the dark den door was "sufficiently open" for the tiger to get through before the attack.

Mr Bell said he saw another tiger appear on the scene and they were "disputing" as the zoo keeper was dragged into the dark den.

It is thought he was the only person to witness the attack.

Miss McClay, who was born in Glasgow, died from multiple injuries including deep puncture wounds to the neck, the back of her body, both arms and her left foot.

The tiger enclosure housed a male and a female Sumatran tiger on one side - where the attack took place - and two jaguars and an Amur tiger on the other side.

Miss McClay's mother Fiona has told the inquest that her daughter was doing her "dream job" and was "a meticulous person to the extreme".

Fellow zoo keeper Emma Els told the hearing that Miss McClay had let her into the tiger house shortly before the attack in the mid-afternoon to grease the internal sliding gates.

But during the routine she ran out of grease and was let out of the tiger's dark den by Miss McClay and then the keeper's entrance.

She said she could not recall whether her colleague locked the dark den door after letting her out.

Mrs Els said the Sumatran tigers were locked outside and not in the enclosure at that time.

She said it was around 3.45pm feeding time but that the Sumatran tigers were on their once-a-week fasting that day.

When she returned to the tiger house minutes later, she saw people outside and someone had shouted "the tiger is out", she said.

She said: "At first I thought it was a joke as people are always saying 'there is a cat behind you' .

"As I got a little bit closer, I knew something was wrong."

In tears, she added: "When I got to the viewing window I could see Sarah and Padang (the male tiger). Sarah was on her back with Padang behind her.

"I remember shouting on the radio 'Padang has got Sarah, I need help'."

Mr Rogers said he understood that a leg of meat in a box was in the keepers' corridor but Mrs Els said she could not recall Miss McClay having any food with her.

She agreed that tigers in the outside enclosure would know if food was there because of their "incredible sense of smell".

Her husband, Cornelius, a maintenance worker at the time, rushed to the scene and forced open the entrance door with a crowbar.

He saw that the door to the dark den was not locked and both the top and bottom bolts were not fastened across, which kept the door ajar.

He also saw that two sliding gates which allowed internal access for the tigers were open, the jury heard.

The hearing continues tomorrow.

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