Mystery over keeper’s death in tiger cage

Owner tells of frantic attempt at rescue as police investigate technical fault or human error at zoo

The owner of the zoo where a young keeper was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger told yesterday of his attempts to save the 24-year-old from the beast.

David Gill recalled the terrifying moment he heard Sarah McClay's screams over the radio and received an emergency message that she was in trouble.

Mr Gill, who owns South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, said that he was at the scene of the attack within seconds and tried to shoot the tiger. "I dropped everything and so did my colleagues who were working with me and we ran flat out to the tiger enclosure and we were very close," he said.

"We were there within 30 seconds. It was immediately apparent that a tiger had a person. There was no movement or anything. We immediately broke out firearms – the animal manager broke out firearms – and within two minutes we had firearms on scene."

Despite being armed, Mr Gill said he was unable to save Ms McClay's life as he could not fire directly at the tiger. "Sadly we could not get a clean shot to do anything about it, because of where the animal was," he said. "I let off two shots and [the tigers] ran back into the house and the other keepers locked them up."

He and the other keepers then "went into the enclosure to recover Sarah".

Ms McClay is understood to have suffered a cardiac arrest at the scene; she also sustained serious injuries to her neck and head. Paramedics tried to revive her before she was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Preston, where she died.

Inspector Matt Pearman, from Cumbria Police, said: "Sarah's family have been informed. Quite clearly they are very shocked, very distressed by this episode."

It is still uncertain why Ms McClay, from the Barrow-in-Furness area, had entered the tiger enclosure on Friday afternoon. Cumbria police said an elaborate enclosure system of gates should have meant the animals and their keepers remain apart at all times – but this system failed, with fatal consequences.

Detectives are now trying to establish whether this was due to a technical fault or human error.

Last night, however, the owner appeared to blame the keeper for the accident. Mr Gill said that Miss McClay had worked with big cats at the wildlife park for 15 months and was "very proficient", but on that day had appeared not to have followed safety procedures.

"The investigations that have taken place so far seem to have shown a tragic error of judgement and not following the safety protocols as they are written, and somehow or other managing to open up the tiger enclosure and walk straight in with the tigers. And, of course, the tigers take over then and instinct kicks in. That's how the tragedy happened," he said.

But Mr Gill's comments and his decision to reopen the animal park yesterday attracted criticism on the zoo's Facebook page.

Police refused to comment on his remarks last night, insisting their enquiries were continuing on behalf of the local coroner. They appealed for more witnesses to come forward, but said they were not treating the matter as a criminal investigation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor