WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A veteran New Zealand zookeeper was attacked and killed by an Israeli-born Sumatran tiger Sunday inside the animal’s enclosure.
Police said they were called to the Hamilton Zoo at 11 a.m. after reports that 43-year-old Samantha Kudeweh had been attacked by one of the zoo’s five tigers. Police said she died at the scene.
The zoo asked all visitors to leave and said it was closing its doors until Thursday. Authorities are investigating to determine exactly what happened.
Zoo visitor Adam Rich told The New Zealand Herald that he saw the tigers Sunday morning and noticed a female zookeeper opening up a gate to allow them access to an outdoor enclosure.
He said that about 45 minutes to an hour later, zoo staff approached him and asked him to leave. He said they were offering everyone a refund.
“They seemed a bit panicky,” Rich said.
Kudeweh was a senior member of the staff and had been a zookeeper for more than 20 years, according to police.
A biography on the zoo’s website described her role as curator, responsible for organizing what animals the zoo obtained and how it looked after them.
“For me the best thing about my role is the opportunities to interact with other species one to one, but there is a downside and that is having to say goodbye to animals,” Kudeweh wrote on the site. “That part never gets any easier.”
The zoo is owned and operated by the Hamilton City Council.
Council spokesman Jeff Neems said the tiger that attacked Kudeweh is named Oz and is the zoo’s only adult male tiger.
He said Oz was currently safely contained inside his enclosure. He said he had no comment on whether the animal was likely to be put down.
Neems said the public was never in danger during the incident and that all animals had remained contained in their enclosures.
“Our focus at this time is on providing the adequate support for our staff and family members who have been affected by this tragic incident,” the council said in a statement, adding that it would not comment on what went wrong until all investigations had been completed.
Neems said the zoo has 128,000 visitors each year, making it about the fourth most popular zoo in New Zealand. He said that he didn’t know how many visitors were at the zoo during the incident.
The zoo states on its website that it is home to over 600 native and exotic animals set on 25 hectares (62 acres) of grounds.
Sumatran tigers are considered critically endangered, with less than 400 of the tiger subspecies still living in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.