A rare Malayan tiger attacked and killed an employee at a zoo in West Palm Beach Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the zoo confirmed.
The attack happened about 2 p.m. ET during a routine procedure, according to Palm Beach Zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter, who added that the male tiger never escaped its enclosure and was immediately tranquilized.
Stacey Konwiser, 38, lead tiger keeper at the zoo, was killed by a 13-year-old male Malayan tiger, one of four at the facility, in the contained area where the animals are fed and sleep, Carter said.
“If you knew her, you knew about her love for these creatures,” Carter said.
Zoo officials said it didn’t appear Konwiser did anything out of the norm as she worked in the enclosure, known as the tiger night house, and prepared to talk with zoo visitors about the animals in a “Tiger Talk.”
“As a zoo family, we are grieving at this time this loss,” Carter said. “On behalf of all of us, from the keepers, from those of us that knew this victim, we want her family to know that … our thoughts and prayers are with her.”
Konwiser had worked at the zoo for three years and was very experienced with tigers, Carter said. Her husband, Jeremy Konwiser, is also a trainer at the zoo.
“This was her specialty,” she said. “She loved tigers. You don’t get into this business without the love for the animals and understanding the danger that’s involved even more.”
Konwiser had a special bond with the big cats, Carter told the Palm Beach Post.
“I kind of referred to her as a tiger whisperer,” she said. “They spoke to each other in a language that only they could understand. And I can’t put into words or make you understand for anyone who didn’t know Stacey how much she loved these tigers and how much this zoo family loved her. And while she’s no longer with us, her memory will live on.”
While no guests were ever in danger, Carter said, officials rushed visitors into a contained area for about 20 minutes as a precaution. Some reported overhearing officials talking about a tiger that was on the loose.
The Palm Beach Zoo will be closed all weekend, officials said. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was responding.
The Malayan tiger is extremely endangered, with less than 250 left in the wild, Carter said.
The Palm Beach Zoo is part of a breeding program that aims to keep the animals from becoming extinct.
On Friday night, the zoo issued a statement and posted it on their website.
“This marks the first death of a human involved in an animal incident in the history of Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society. Grief counselors remain available to zoo staff affected by this tragic incident. Our focus remains on providing the adequate support for our staff and family members who have been affected by this tragic incident.”
“This is a very difficult situation for all zoo staff, family members of Konwiser, her family and the extended zoo family. We ask the media and public to respect the privacy of those involved during this difficult time.”