A Malayan tiger.
Photo by Eileenmak/Flickr CC
When the Palm Beach Zoo opens on Monday after being closed to the public over the weekend, it won’t quite be business as usual. Zoo employees have been mourning the death of zookeeper Stacey Konwiser, who was killed by a male Malayan tiger on Friday. Her death made international news.
Konwiser, age 38, was a lead tiger keeper who cared for the four Malayan tigers at the zoo and was preparing for a “Tiger Talk” show around 2 p.m. when one of the male tigers attacked her in the "night house" behind the exhibit. Officials have not released details of the attack, and investigations are underway by the West Palm Beach Police Department, Florida Fish and Wildlife, the Association of Zoos and Aquariams, and the USDA. The tiger was tranquilized Friday afternoon and has been recovering.
While there has been no confirmation as to what actions led to the attack, Carter said at the Sunday news conference, “We have passed 25 years of accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There are over 200 zoos, and less than 10 percent have the accreditation. The maneuvers we took that day with the tiger, as far as safety and protocol is concerned, there are stringent procedures. We are constantly under scrutiny, we are constantly under audits, we are constantly under safety measures to ensure that protocols and checks and balances are in place. Those safety measures and checks and balances were conducted that day when this incident occurred.”
Still, some critics have speculated that there was human error involved. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says zoos are supposed to use protected contact, keeping some barrier such as a fence or a wall between handler and animal at all times.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund called for federal authorities to impose the “maximum penalties” on the Palm Beach Zoo to “ensure an end to these preventable deaths in zoos.”
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, there have been at least 24 deaths and 265 injuries caused by captive big cats in the United States, resulting in the deaths of more than 128 big cats — many of whom were endangered species.
There are fewer than 250 Malayan tigers in the wild, and the Palm Beach Zoo is a part of a Survival Species Plan and has been breeding the tigers.
Konwiser had just hit her three-year anniversary working for the Palm Beach Zoo but had recently accepted a job with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Carter on Sunday confirmed that the zoo was in the process of creating a new position for Konwiser to retain her.
Konwiser was known by some as the “tiger whisperer” and had a deep love for big cats and all animals. Her husband, Jeremy, also worked at the zoo as a keeper.
Zookeeper Allegra Dorotheo was comforted by canines the zoo brought in on Sunday to help employees cope with their grief. She said, "When no amount of words are adequate, we bring in the puppies. Thank you, Crisis Response Canines, for coming out to let us love on you. I can see now why organizations like these are so important for helping people who have been through traumatic events. I know these dogs cannot undo what happened, nor bring Stacey back to us, but their endless affection helped to briefly soothe the aching in our hearts.”
A GoFundMe campaign purports to raise money for the family so that “Jeremy has one less thing to worry about.” More than $4,000 has been raised so far — but New Times has not verified that the account is supported by the Konwiser family.
Carter on Sunday said, “Our focus right now is to mourn together as a zoo family and to push forward with the work that Stacey dedicated her life to. Our mission is to inspire people to act on behalf of wildlife in the natural world. That is what we will be doing in honor and memory of Stacey. While Stacey is not here, her memory will live on, and while she is gone, she will never be forgotten.”
The Palm Beach Zoo has created a fund to support tiger conservation in Stacey Konwiser's honor, called the Stacey Konwiser Conservation Fund. Click here to make a donation.