Keeper killed by tiger was looking for a safer job

Friday 17 February 1995 01:02
Comments

A keeper killed by a tiger at a zoo belonging to John Aspinall was looking for a safer job after getting married, his widow told an inquest yesterday.

Trevor Smith, 32, was bitten on the neck by Balkash, a two-year-old Siberian tiger, as he cleaned a tiger enclosure at Howletts Zoo Park near Canterbury, Kent, on 13 November last year.

The jury, which was told that keepers were "encouraged" to enter enclosures, returned a verdict of accidental death.

Debbie Smith, a former chimpanzee keeper at the zoo, told the Canterbury hearing that her husband loved his job, which he had had since 1988.

But asked if, after their marriage earlier last year, he intended to stay in his job at Howletts, she said: "He was aware of the dangers. He was looking for another job as we were trying for a family."

Roy Warne, her counsel, asked: "He became aware of the responsibility of being a father, so wanted something with less risk?"

Mrs Smith, 22, of Goodnestone, Kent, replied: "He had thought of the Post Office." She said her husband would have been prepared to continue as a tiger keeper if he had been barred from going in the cage.

But the zoo "encouraged" keepers to go into enclosures with the large animals, which her husband enjoyed. However, he had been bitten on the hand in 1992.

Mrs Smith said her husband was able to tell the tigers' mood, and judge whether it was wise for him to go into the enclosure. He had known "the characters" of the male tiger Balkash and the female tiger Zamsan, which was kept in the same enclosure.

Roger Brown, who was visiting the zoo on the day of the tragedy, said there was nothing amiss when he first saw Mr Smith with the tigers.

"They appeared to be friendly and nuzzling him, they didn't appear to be aggressive," he said. But as Mr Smith crossed the compound, the tigers walking alongside him became "a little bit more animated" and suddenly began milling around him.

"Without warning the larger tiger went up on its rear legs, putting its front paws on the keeper's shoulders."

Mr Smith, who had been facing the tiger, then shouted and fell to the ground. Mr Brown assumed at the time it was because of the weight of the animal on him. The tiger then ran across the enclosure holding the keeper in its mouth, lifeless.

Mr Brown's wife Margaret said of the change in the tigers' mood: "They appeared to be getting very friendly and somewhat overwhelming. The atmosphere was electric." She added: "I seem to remember Trevor Smith realising that they were serious, it wasn't just play." As her husband ran to raise the alarm, she grabbed a length of plastic pipe and banged it on the enclosure fence to try to distract the tigers, but it had no effect.

Another keeper then went into the enclosure armed with a spade, and pushed the tigers away and into an adjoining enclosure.

Hazel Burton, keeper of small cats at Howletts, said that Mr Smith was a regular visitor to the tigers and they had grown up with him. He always took a shovel or rake with him for protection.

Nick Marks, head carnivores keeper, said Mr Aspinall had never instructed keepers to go into the enclosures. He told the inquest that he had heard a shout from Mr Smith in the tigers' enclosure, and ran from his house, grabbing a spade from his garden as he did so.

He saw Balkash standing over Mr Smith's body and entered the enclosure, beating Balkash off with the spade, and radioed for help as he got the tigers into the adjoining enclosure.

Dr Ian Ilesley, consultant pathologist at Kent and Canterbury Hospital, said a postmortem examination showed Mr Smith died from fractures to the cervical vertebrae and skull.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in