WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The fatal attack on Palm Beach Zoo’s lead keeper, Stacey Konwiser, by a 300-pound Malayan tiger presents what animal-rights advocates say is a teachable moment where the public can learn how these endangered animals are exploited for entertainment.
Animal-rights advocates say the public appears ready for a “sea change,” where it is no longer acceptable to put apex predators like tigers, lions and bears in enclosures of any kind.
“We want to believe these animals love us like we love them, and they don’t,” said Bobbi Brink, founder and director of Lions, Tigers & Bears, a sanctuary in Alpine, Calif. “As people, we have to be careful not to trust them because they are what they are. When we put them in a cage, they have nothing to do but look for that opportunity.”
Brink and fellow advocates point to public outrage following the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish” over the treatment of killer whales at theme parks and reports of trainer deaths. In turn, SeaWorld has announced it is phasing out public performances involving orcas by 2019.
Konwiser’s death took place in the zoo’s “night house.” It’s akin to being in solitary confinement, advocates say.
“We are talking about apex predators who have home ranges of 100 square miles in the wild,” said Carney Anne Nasser, a senior counsel with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Animals in confinement are like ticking time bombs. Even with the best care, there is nowhere to turn with those natural instincts.”
Conservationists say there are about 3,200 tigers left in the wild, but it’s uncertain how many are held in captivity in the United States. Some guess it’s as high as 10,000.
The tiger question was tackled last year by Smithsonian magazine in a piece entitled, “America Has a Tiger Problem And No One’s Sure How to Solve It.”
The zoo’s response
After the attack Friday, a zoo spokeswoman described Konwiser as a “tiger whisperer,” who seemed to have a language all her own with the four wild animals in her charge. Konwiser’s Facebook page was replete with photos and her love of tigers.
Zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter stressed at a Saturday news conference there is no official comment on whether Konwiser followed proper protocol in performing what has been described as a routine task in the enclosure.
“We are prepared to handle these wild animals,” Carter said. “This is an endangered species. Stacey understood the dangers that come with this job. She had a passion for this job — that is the only reason why you become a keeper. She understood every single day she was putting her life at risk.”
The zoo is waiting for federal and state authorities to investigate and it has not given a timeline except to say Konwiser was preparing for a 2 p.m. “Tiger Talk” with park patrons.
“She loved tigers and they loved her,” Carter said.