Sarah McClay: Defective bolt blamed for death of zookeeper mauled to death by tiger


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The Independent Online

A woman mauled to death by a tiger at the wildlife park where she worked was doing her “dream job”, her mother has told an inquest.

Sarah McClay, 24, suffered multiple injuries when she was attacked by a male Sumatran tiger at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, in May last year.

The inquest was told that police found a defective door bolt in one of the internal doors in the tiger house immediately after the attack.

Zoo keeper Ms McClay, from Barrow-in-Furness, was in the big cat enclosure at the park when she was attacked. She was taken by air ambulance to Royal Preston Hospital but later died from her injuries.

Police said at the time of her death that the enclosure concerned consisted of indoor and outdoor compartments connected by lockable doors. Keepers were required to enter various parts of the enclosure in the course of their routine duties. However, systems were said to be in place to ensure that animals and keepers remained apart at all times.

Fiona McClay, of Linlithgow, West Lothian, told the inquest in Kendal that her daughter was happy with her work. “It was a dream job... I would say, ever since she had visited the park as a child.”

She said that her daughter saw it as a privilege to work with big cats. She was, she said, a “meticulous person”. “She would never just do something. She always wanted to do it a little bit better.”

Commenting on calls for the tiger to be killed, Mrs McClay said: “That is absolutely 100 per cent not what Sarah would not have wanted. She would not have blamed the tiger for anything [that] had happened.”

A post-mortem examination showed that among Glasgow-born Ms McClay’s injuries were deep puncture wounds to the neck, the back of her body, both arms and her left foot. There was also evidence suggesting that the tiger had dragged her across the ground.  The South Cumbria Coroner, Ian Smith, told the jury of six women and four men that the nature of the case was “extremely unusual,” with the facts of the case not “altogether clear”. To aid them a scale model of the tiger house had been made.

Sarah McClay was attacked by the tiger at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness

The tiger enclosure – which housed a male and a female Sumatran tiger, two jaguars and an Amur tiger – consisted of a number of compartments connected by lockable doors which all worked independently.

Owen Broadhead, a senior environmental health officer with Barrow Borough Council – which licenses the park – told the inquest that a bolt on the top of one of the internal doors which opened on to the keeper’s corridor, was found to be defective.

“The bolt could not be held back. When it tried to close into the frame [of the door] it would bang against the frame which left a gap of 20 to 25 millimetres,” he said.

“If the bolt was working properly it would be held back and would close tightly into the frame.”

He agreed with lawyer Paul Rogers, representing the wildlife park, that his inspection of the door took place some hours after the incident had happened and there had been “quite a lot of activity” in that area previously.

The jury will visit the park today before hearing from other witnesses including staff and visitors.

The inquest continues.