Como Zoo tiger exhibit safe but being rechecked as a precaution, director says

The eyes of the zoo world were turned to San Francisco today, when the SF Zoo reopened after a Siberian tiger there escaped from its enclosure on Christmas Day and killed one man and mauled two others.

Here in St. Paul, at Como Zoo, director Mike Hahm says the San Francisco disaster is “a great reminder to be sure we continually pursue safety. We continually revisit all of our procedures and inspect and assess zoo safety on a daily basis,” he says.

In San Francisco, as soon as the zoo’s doors reopened, visitors placed bouquets and other memorials to the victims inside the front gate. The zoo now has an improved public alert system and more signs urging visitors not to taunt the animals.

Its tiger exhibit remains closed, and the zoo has asked the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the national accreditation organization, to comment on the zoo’s proposed new security barriers that will be built to protect the big cats and zoo visitors.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that the zoo there has been beset with problems in recent years — including the deaths of three of their four elephants — and that employee morale is very low.

In its press release, the San Francisco facility refers to the tiger as “The Zoo’s beloved Siberian tiger, Tatiana.” It was killed by police officers responding to the maulings.

Como, too, has a Siberian tiger; she weighs about 200 pounds, Hahm said, but the San Francisco tiger was much larger, about 350 pounds.

As a result of the attack, Como officials are remeasuring all the tiger walls, which according to AZA regulations, should be 16.4 feet or higher. The first check made after the San Francisco incident showed the apparent lowest section of wall is 14 feet high, with a 4-foot-high section of “outrigging” above that.

Hahm said the outrigging is like a baseball backstop, leaning in towards the enclosure. The other tiger walls are all about 18 feet high, he said. “We’ve got a safe exhibit,” he said.

Como had a much-publicized animal escape in the early 1990s, when Casey the gorilla popped out of his enclosure and wandered around the zoo for about 45 minutes. No one was hurt and Casey eventually returned voluntarily to his pen.

Afterward, the zoo capitalized on the escape by painting Casey footsteps around the zoo, showing the path the 400-pound Western lowland gorilla took during his foray. They could do that without criticism because no one was hurt during Casey’s turn at the bat. They also modified the enclosure so it couldn’t happen again.

St. Paul officials are asking the Legislature for about $10 million this year to build a new exhibit, which would open in 2012 if approved. The zoo also is requesting an additional $800,000 to finish a new polar bear exhibit that is in the works.

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