It only takes a second for one mistake to change everything.
By all accounts, Stacy Konwiser knew what she was doing. As the lead tiger keeper at the Palm Beach Zoo, Konwiser was an experienced handler and was familiar with the protocols meant to keep both animals and people safe. When she was fatally attacked earlier this month, she was in an area called the “tiger night house” and, according to the investigation, it was clearly marked as an area to which a tiger had active access.
This is not a matter of whether or not the Palm Beach Zoo has adequate protocols and safety standards in place. It does, and those protocols mandate that a keeper should never be in an area to which a tiger has access. Konwiser should not have been in that enclosure at the time she was attacked.
So the question is, why was she in there? One can only assume it was a horrible mistake or oversight on Konwiser’s part that took her life, but we’ll never know. She was well aware of the dangers with these animals, and as the author of the protocols that are in place she would know that entering an enclosure with a tiger would likely result in this.
I have had the honor of touring a tiger sanctuary here in San Diego and seeing these creatures up close, within the bounds normally reserved for zookeepers. The tiger decided to come up to the fence and jump up on it right in front of me, with just the chain-link fence between us. I have never felt so small in my life. No one in their right mind would knowingly put themselves near one of these tigers without protection. They are magnificent and brutal.
When Konwiser was attacked, the zoo had to make a split second decision about whether to shoot the tiger with bullets or with tranquilizers. They chose the latter. Several factors went into that choice, including the risk of further injury to Konwiser or other people from bullet ricochets, as well as the fact that this was one of only 250 Malayan tigers in the world. This tiger was not doing anything unexpected. He was in his normal place doing his normal things and when an opportunity presented itself, he did what a tiger would normally do.
There is no right or wrong answer as to whether the zoo made the right decision on that count. Were one to ask a person as dedicated to these creatures as Konwiser was whether an animal deserved to die because of a mistake someone else made, I would venture that her answer would be “no.” The tiger is still alive and the zoo has no plans to change that.
Konwiser’s tragic death is a wake-up call to all of us who do dangerous things on a daily basis, whether it’s working with apex predators or simply driving to the grocery store. We live with rules and regulations (double check the gates! Put on your seatbelt! Don’t check your cell phone while driving!) meant to keep up safe, yet so often we tell ourselves “just this once I’ll let it pass.” When that one time turns out all right, it becomes easier next time to also ignore the rules. And when rules become guidelines, and then just suggestions, mistakes will happen.
And good people will pay the price.
Image: Nicki / Flickr