Ben Silcock, of Roehampton, south-west London, was mauled by a fully grown lion on Thursday as parents and children watched. The Asiatic lion dragged him along the ground, his head in its mouth, as onlookers stood motionless. It released its hold only when a keeper fired a rifle shot into the air.
Visitors saw Mr Silcock throwing the carcasses of two plucked chickens towards the animal. The keeper was called but when she warned Mr Silcock to move away, he laughed. Seconds later the lion pounced. Mr Silcock was seen hanging 'like a rag doll' from its mouth.
His father, Bryan Silcock, a Sunday Times journalist, said he did not know his son's motive for scaling the fence.
'Ben has always felt a deep involvement with animals, although he is not a member of any animal rights organisation. I can only guess at his motives for climbing into the lions' enclosure. But the illusion that he could establish some kind of mystical contact with them would be consistent with ideas he has expressed in the past,' Mr Silcock said.
He said his son had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia about eight years ago. 'He has been hospitalised several times but he has managed on his own fairly successfully in the last 18 months.'
Mr Silcock said his son, who was unemployed, had been living on his own in Roehampton. When he had last seen his son, on Christmas Day, he had not mentioned anything about going to the zoo.
Robert Nowland, a scrap merchant who lives with his wife and two children in the flat above Ben Silcock, said he was 'shocked and troubled by the news'.
'I didn't think Ben had it in him to go as far as London Zoo. He rarely left his flat.'
Mr Nowland said Mr Silcock was a 'placid, timid type'.
'He was not a violent person but I felt that if he was provoked enough he would attack. We had a bit of trouble with him leaving the stove on and setting fire to saucepans but apart from that he was very quiet. Animals were his life. That was all he cared about.
'He has this cat - a Persian cat. I reckon he feeds it better than he feeds himself. Fresh chicken he gives it. And when he's not looking after his cat he is carving sculptures of cats. He has them all round his balcony. African style they are.'
Sam Alexander, 13, who lives on the same estate, said: 'We used to go up to his house all the time last summer. He had a made-up cat in his mind which he called Pippa. He drew it all the time and he used to make up poems about it. He thought it was a God.'
The incident with the lions was not the first of its kind, a friend reveals. Two years ago Mr Silcock went into a compound full of guard dogs to 'play' with them. He survived it without 'too much injury'.
'He showed great talent as a boy - he was particularly good at the violin. His father used to tinkle away at the piano while he sawed away on the strings. But even at that stage he had an incredible temper.
'He used to kick his father and scream. At the time I thought he was spoilt - that he needed a good slap. It was only later we realised the reasons behind it all. He couldn't help it - he was sick.
'The violence got worse as he grew up. His family had to put up with terrible tantrums. It had an awful effect on family life. It was like living with a stick of dynamite.
' It is a tragedy. He could have been an intelligent, gifted person. As a child Ben believed himself to be immune from wild animals. He often said that he shared the same instincts.'
Dr Jo Gipps, acting zoo chief executive, said the zoo would launch an inquiry into the security of the pen, focusing on access to a 25ft (8m) metal fence which Mr Silcock scaled.
He praised the swift action of zoo keepers who used a fire extinguisher and gun to frighten the 25-stone lion, called Arfer, away from his victim.
'I believe this man owes his life to the quick work of my staff. Their prompt action got the lion out of the way as quickly as possible', he said. 'There is no question of the lion being put down. He behaved as any lion would.'Reuse content