One zoo visitor was mauled to death and two others severely injured when a Siberian tiger escaped from its grotto at the San Francisco Zoo early Christmas evening and went on a bloody rampage in front of terrified zoo patrons.
The tiger - the same animal that chewed a keeper's arm during an attack last December - was shot to death outside a zoo cafe by four officers who managed to distract the animal as it mauled one of its victims.
The horrifying violence, which occurred just after the zoo's 5 p.m. closing time while dozens of patrons were still inside, began when the tiger somehow managed to gain its liberty from the grotto.
The animal, a 4-year-old tiger named Tatiana, did not leave the grotto through its only door, zookeepers said. The grotto is surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat and a 20-foot-high wall.
"We don't know how it was able to get out," said Robert Jenkins, director of animal care at the zoo. "The tiger should not have been able to jump (out). This is the first thing we will be investigating."
Police officers refused to rule out carelessness or criminal activity as possible means for the tiger's escape.
The two injured men, ages 19 and 23, both underwent surgery Tuesday evening. The man who died, also thought to be in his 20s, was found near the tiger grotto, police said.
After the initial attack, the tiger proceeded about 300 yards to the Terrace Cafe restaurant, where it assaulted the other two victims with its claws and teeth.
Alerted by frantic calls from the zoo, four officers arrived in two police cars and tracked the tiger to the cafe. The tiger was sitting next to one victim but, when the officers arrived, it resumed its attack.
"The tiger jumped back on top," police Sgt. Steve Mannina said. "The victim had blood on his face."
The animal, distracted by the four officers and by the flashing red lights of the patrol cars, abandoned its victim and advanced toward the officers, Mannina said. The officers all fired their .40-caliber handguns, striking the tiger an unknown number of times.
John Brown, an emergency room physician at San Francisco General Hospital, said the two injured men suffered deep bites and claw cuts to their heads and upper bodies. They were able to talk about the attack, although they were not thoroughly questioned Tuesday evening. The men could be released from the hospital as early as today, officials said.
The zoo will be closed today out of respect for the unnamed victims. At daybreak, officers and firefighters will comb the 1,000-acre zoo grounds. Officials said they could not rule out the possibility that there were other victims, even though there were no initial reports of missing persons.
In the hours after the attack, the scene at the zoo was surreal, with shotgun-toting officers marching outside the south entrance. Firefighters stood atop tall ladders and shined bright arc lights into the treetops and foliage, searching for victims and animals. Zookeepers who had been evacuated from the grounds stood together in small groups outside the gate, quietly consoling one another and weeping.
Despite earlier warnings, the other zoo tigers never escaped into the public areas, said San Francisco Fire Department spokesman Lt. Ken Smith.
At the time of Tuesday's attack, the zoo had two Siberian and three Sumatran tigers. According to the zoo, more humans die each year in tiger attacks than in attacks by any other animal, although such incidents are still rare because tigers normally avoid people.
On Dec. 22, 2006, the 350-pound Tatiana chewed the flesh off Lori Komejan's arm during a public feeding demonstration. A state investigation later ruled that the zoo was at fault for the attack because of the way the cages were configured.
A June report from the state Division of Occupation Safety and Health blamed the San Francisco Zoo for the 2006 attack, stating that the tiger cages were configured in a way that made it possible for Tatiana to bite the zookeeper's arm. The state found that Komejan was attacked after she reached through a drain trough to retrieve an item near the tiger's side of the cage. The tiger reached under the cage bars and grabbed her right arm, but the zookeeper tried to push the tiger away using her other arm, the report found.
Both of her arms were under the cage at that point and her face was pressed against the cage bars, according to the report. Another employee grabbed a long-handled squeegee and hit the tiger in the head until it released the injured zookeeper.
The public feedings at the Lion House resumed in September after about $250,000 in safety upgrades.