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Zoo owner fired shot at tiger

The owner of a wildlife park where a woman zoo keeper was mauled to death by a tiger has described how he fired a shot at the animal.

Sarah McClay, 24, was pounced on in the keeper's corridor of the tiger house at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Cumbria before she was dragged by the back of the neck into a den and then to an outside enclosure.

David Gill, who designed the tiger house and set up the park in Dalton-in-Furness from scratch, told a inquest jury how he ran to the scene when he heard on the park radio that male Sumatran tiger Padang "had got Sarah".

He jumped out of a digger 80 yards away and ran towards a fence on the side of the enclosure where he saw the tiger with Miss McClay.

Mr Gill said: "He was looking at me and he was sort of sat there. I took real good care to look at Sarah. She didn't move at all. She was completely still, no movement in the slightest."

Staff members had retrieved firearms as part of their emergency procedures and he grabbed a shotgun from a colleague, he said.

A maintenance worker broke down the entrance door followed by Mr Gill as they went into the corridor where Miss McClay had been working.

The inquest in Kendal has previously heard that the corridor door to the tigers' dark den was open as were two internal gates which allowed the animals to roam in and out to the paddock.

The area was made secure as efforts were then made to capture Padang and female Sumatran tiger Alisha, who came in of her own accord.

Mr Gill said he then swapped weapons and took a rifle as he made his way back to the side of the enclosure.

He said: "I got a visual of the tiger. I could not get a shot because of banking and trees

"Sarah was below the tiger."

A staff member then radioed to say she had a view of Miss McClay and the tiger from the top of the penguin walkway.

Mr Gill said: "I then ran like crazy to get round there. I could see the tiger but unfortunately it was stood right over Sarah.

"Again I couldn't get a clean shot without the risk of shooting her. I decided to to take a shot at the top of the tiger's shoulder which was the highest point visible but at the moment the rifle went off the tiger just ran off straight back into the tiger house."

Both tigers were then confined into the house which was fully locked and bolted, he said.

He added: "Obviously everyone was on the way, the emergency services.

"The emergency procedure I will say went to plan. Everybody did what they were supposed to. I was very proud of how they all worked."

The jury of six women and four men 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 self-closing doors.

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

The court heard that a bolt on the top of the dark den door 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.

The jury has heard that the door was slightly open after the alarm was raised and was not locked either by the top bolt and bottom bolt, and was not padlocked across the middle.

Mr Gill said he was with police officers as the door was later inspected.

He said: "It was the case I believe that the door did not close when it was held open at a certain angle.

"It did that once. I was holding the door open for quite a long while they (the police) inspected the area."

He said it happened only once out of 10 to 12 times he went to close it.

The inquest has heard that the Sumatran tigers were on their weekly fast on the day of Miss McClay's death but he said that lack of food would not have made them "more aggressive".

He explained: "You have to try to recreate what happens in the wild. The idea is to try to empty the system as nature intends. If not they become very fat and lethargic."

The jury was told that Miss McClay had fed the jaguar big cats in the adjoining enclosure shortly before the attack and had food ready in the corridor for an Amur tiger which was locked in a den.

Mr Gill agreed he was a "hands-on owner" and said he had 18 years of experience of working with tigers.

He said the park was subject to a major inspection every six years and roughly annual spot checks.

In that time he said no-one had ever raised concerns about the design or operation of the tiger house, he said.

The hearing continues tomorrow.

Fiona McClay, Miss McClay's mother, has attended the hearing throughout since it began on Monday but chose to leave the room just before Mr Gill was called to give evidence.


From Belfast Telegraph