Investigation continues into fatal tiger attack at S.F. zoo

12:24 PST SAN FRANCISCO - -- Police are treating the San Francisco Zoo as a crime scene this afternoon, one day after a 350-pound tiger escaped and fatally mauled a 17-year-old San Jose boy before attacking two other men 300 yards away.

A search of the zoo this morning did not turn up any additional victims of the Christmas Day attack, police said today. Investigators are trying to piece together exactly how the 4-year-old Siberian tiger, named Tatiana, escaped from her enclosure prior to the attack, and are asking anyone who witnessed the escape or the attacks to contact police.

The three victims knew each other, although it's wasn't immediately clear why they were in different areas of the zoo at the time of the attacks, authorities said.

Police officers, along with fire department and zoo personnel, conducted four searches of the zoo grounds since the Tuesday evening attack, said police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens. Authorities used a helicopter with thermal imaging and floodlights to comb the zoo for additional victims or escaped animals when it was still dark, he said.

The tiger - which also mauled a zookeeper last December - was shot and killed by police while attacking one of the victims Tuesday evening.

Rochelle Dicker, an emergency room surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital who operated on the victims, said today that the two survivors, 19- and 23-year-old brothers from San Jose, were recovering remarkably well. The men, whose names have not been released, are awake and stable, Dicker said.

Doctors are focusing on preventing infection from the bacteria that may be present in the men's wounds, she said. That bacteria is similar to the type found in the common house cat, officials said.

Dicker said the men were in critical condition when they arrived at the hospital Tuesday but that emergency crews had managed to stabilize the victims and clean their wounds. Both men underwent multiple surgeries with several different teams of doctors through the night, she said. The surgeries mostly consisted of cleaning the wounds more thoroughly and stitching the gashes, Dicker said.

Doctors will keep the men at the hospital today to monitor them, she said. Dicker attributed their recovery to the fact that both are young and in good health.

The man who was killed outside the zoo's tiger grotto has not yet been identified, said a spokesman at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office. Officials hoped to release the man's identification later today, he said, but for now are referring to him as "John Doe 116," while they work on a positive identification and contacting his family.

The zoo, which is closed today for the first time in years, was eerily quiet this morning. The cafe where the attack victims were found is shuttered and still, and a dozen police officers gathered with zoo officials just west of the cafe earlier this morning, poring over maps and handing out equipment.

San Francisco Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo said that officials hope to reopen the zoo Thursday, but plan on keeping the outdoor big cat exhibit closed indefinitely. Police are treating the area as a crime scene, collecting physical evidence and taking statements from any witnesses, Police Chief Heather Fong said.

Lora LaMarca, a zoo spokeswoman, said this morning that officials still have no idea how the animal escaped from its grotto, which is surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat and a 20-foot high wall. Police on Tuesday night refused to rule out the possibility of carelessness or criminal activity, and zoo officials said the tiger did not escape through the grotto's only door.

"We don't know at this point if somebody let the tiger out or it climbed out," Gittens said, adding that if someone did let the animal out it would be considered a crime.

The zoo held a staff meeting this morning, LaMarca said, and authorities there are offering grief counselors to its employees.

"The zoo offers its sincerest sympathies to the people affected," she said.

The rampage began about 20 minutes just after the zoo closed at 5 p.m. Tuesday, while dozens of visitors were still milling about inside. The animal apparently escaped from the grotto, attacked the first man near its enclosure, then proceeded about 300 yards to the Terrace Cafe restaurant, where it mauled the other two victims.

When police arrived, the animal was sitting next to one of its victims, but the tiger jumped back on top of the man and resumed its attack, a spokesman said. The animal then became distracted by the four officers, who were yelling, and advanced toward the officers. All four fired their .40-caliber handguns, hitting the tiger an unknown number of times. Gittens said the officers did not want to shoot the animal while it was sitting next to the victim.

"I can only imagine the patrons walking around, and suddenly seeing this tiger," he said. "It was probably surreal."

It's the second time in just over a year that this same tiger attacked a human.

On Dec. 22, 2006, Tatiana chewed the flesh off zookeeper 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.

Mollinedo said today that once the police investigation is complete, he plans to bring in colleagues from other accredited zoos to do a thorough analysis of the big cat exhibits.

"We want to make sure they are safe, and see what kind of modifications should be done to ensure the safety of (people and animals)," he said.

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Tags: image, tiger, tiger attack, san francisco, zoo, fatal tiger attack

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