Tiger Mauls Woman at Marine World
Trainer also hurt at Vallejo park

Saturday, August 1, 1998

Patricia Jacobus, Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writers

In a sudden and furious attack, a 340-pound Bengal tiger at Marine World wild animal park mauled a San Jose woman during a photo session yesterday, seriously injuring her and scratching the trainer who beat the big cat on its head to distract it.

The woman, 45-year-old Jaunell Waldo, was taken by helicopter from the Vallejo park to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She initially was listed in serious but stable condition and was upgraded to fair condition after surgery. Park officials immediately canceled future photo sessions with the park's 12 tigers.

The injured trainer, Chad Zierenberg, was treated at Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo for tiger scratches on his back and was later released. Another trainer, Chris Austria, who yanked on the tiger's leash and pulled him away from the woman, was not injured.

In January 1996, Zierenberg was slightly injured when two cougars that he and another trainer were exercising attacked. In November 1986, another Marine World tiger mauled a San Mateo High School football player during a noisy pep rally at the school.

Yesterday's attack happened at 10:45 a.m. when Waldo was posing on a backstage platform with Kuma, a 2-year-old tiger who was a veteran of some 100 photo sessions. This one started out as just another routine posing in the park's ``Phenomenal Photo Program,'' which allows park customers to be photographed with tigers and orangutans.

The session took place in a makeshift outdoor photo studio that was not visible to park visitors.

According to park spokesman Jeff Jouett, this is what happened:

A friend of Waldo had given her the $250 photo session as a birthday present, and Waldo was kneeling on a raised platform, with Kuma lying down beside her. Austria held a leash attached to a chain around Kuma's neck. Zierenberg was nearby.

People having their picture taken with the tigers are instructed to get up if the tiger gets up. For some reason, Kuma got up, so Waldo did, too.

But Waldo lost her balance and fell off the platform, which was about two feet off the ground.

The suddenness of the fall apparently frightened Kuma, and he lunged after the woman, landed on top of her and bit her around the neck and head.

``The animal bit her basically from below the ear into the neck and back around the neck,'' John Muir trauma surgeon Robert Burns said. ``She had multiple lacerations on the side of the face, the neck and the right arm, and multiple claw marks on the back and chest.'' The bite was on the left side of her neck.

``They were fairly deep. She has injuries down to the base of the skull and the bone,'' Burns said.

The sheer power and force of Kuma's lunge off the platform yanked Austria, who was holding the leash, along with him. Austria regained his balance and pulled the tiger's head far enough from the screaming woman that Zierenberg could slip in between her and the tiger.

The frightened tiger then wrapped his paws around Zierenberg's lower back and clawed him.

Both trainers screamed commands at the tiger. Austria pulled on the leash and Zierenberg, trying to distract the animal, hit him on the head with a cane.

Within seconds it was over, and the tiger, heeding the commands, calmed down.

Marine World's response team arrived and treated the woman until the arrival of paramedics and the helicopter that took her to the hospital.

Jouett said the tiger would be isolated for a couple of weeks and ``observed for any behavioral abnormalities.''

``Kuma was very frightened,'' Jouett said. ``It was unusual for him to be pulled and beaten, and with all the screaming going on, he reacted instinctively in an aggressive manner.''

Jouett said this was the first time Kuma attacked anyone.

``He's been here since he was a few weeks old and was raised by the trainers,'' Jouett said. ``He is a good cat.''

Still, yesterday's attack raised questions about whether people should be allowed near the big cats.

David Robinett, general curator at the San Francisco Zoo, said the zoo would never let visitors in an enclosure with a tiger and rarely allows staff members to go into cages with tigers. Even then, they use barriers to separate themselves from the animals.

``Basically, you are dealing with a wild animal, and regardless of how much you work with it and train it, there is always the potential for danger,'' Robinett said.

He said places like Marine World usually raise their big cats from birth and acclimate the animals to various outside stimuli so that they won't be frightened when something unusual happens.

Robinett said that some animal experts believe that wild cats, including tigers, that are raised in captivity and not taught to kill simply won't kill.

``But there is always a certain amount of that killer instinct there,'' he said.

Visitors to Marine World yesterday, when told of the attack, said they had no intention of ever getting close to a tiger, in or out of a cage.

``Just the word `tiger' scares me,'' said Chong Barraza of Sacramento.

In North Dakota, a 5-year-old boy was injured in a similar attack Thursday, when he was having his picture taken with a Bengal tiger at a state fair exhibit. The tiger apparently became unnerved by the crowd and clawed Antony Gottus, who underwent plastic surgery for several facial cuts. The boy was reported to be in good condition yesterday at a Minot, N.D., hospital.

©1998 San Francisco Chronicle

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