The dangers of getting too close to wild animals

Friday, August 19th 2005, 10:46 am
By: News On 6

The owners of the Kansas sanctuary say it's a tradition for southeast Kansas high school seniors to get their photo taken with the tiger. And in 10 years since the park opened, they've never had any injuries, that is, until Thursday, when a tiger attacked and killed a 17 year old high school student.

But attacks from big cats in captivity are not unheard of; several such maulings have made national headlines. News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin explains how these attacks can happen, even with animals hand-raised by humans.

Local handlers are saddened by the accident in Kansas, but say it never should've happened and that no matter how much training and experience a person might have, you can never forget you're dealing with a wild animal.

Safari Sanctuary handler Kurt Beckleman spends every day with rare hand-raised Siberian tigers, he considers them friends, but still after years of training and experience, he never lets himself get too comfortable. "They're immensely powerful." They're among dozens of big cats at a Broken Arrow sanctuary. It's open to the public, but unlike the park in Kansas, where 17-year old Haley Hilderbrand[pictured] was mauled to death, he says this crew *never* lets anyone except trained professionals near the tigers. "The girl could've had on a skirt or stepped on its tail or moved weird, a cat is used to its handler, the handler is used to the cat, a stranger comes in, and they don't know each other." Beckleman says it's just asking for trouble.

Tigers weigh 500 to 600 pounds and even with a trained handler present, anything unusual could set them off. And if that happens, there's no way you could hold one back. "When a cat decides to take off, it's gonna take off. Five fully grown men could not contain an animal." While leashes are used on smaller cats, Beckleman says the tigers are never taken out.

It's not clear what kind of restraint the handler was using on the tiger in Kansas. Sanctuary owners issued a statement saying "every precaution was taken to ensure both the safety of Haley and her handler; unfortunately, this was a tragic accident that will affect both families forever." Beckleman says tigers do show signs of potential attack. "Ears down, eyes starting at you, tail twitching." But sometimes it can come without warning and the result can be deadly. “You can never take that instinct out of any cat. It's always gonna have that instinct that it's a wild creature."

While they did not want to comment on camera, one of the owners of the Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary in Kansas told me they are simply devastated by the attack. The victim was a family friend.