Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
Recorded Captive Feline 'Incidences'
In order to properly assess the risk that captive big cats—both private pets and those owned by zoological facilities—pose toward the public, all we need to do is examine the exotic feline-related incidences that have occurred in recent history.
There are many sites online that do this, and all of them attempt to convince the reader that it is dangerous to hold exotic animals in captivity, which is not unlike the tactics of the heavily criticized Dogsbite.org webpage that advocates breed-specific legislation. But because there are far more bully breed owners than exotic mammal owners, few have bothered to examine the claims being made about them.
TLDR: Captive exotic cat attacks are rare, and attacks from small to medium-sized cats are extremely rare.
How common are exotic cat attacks?
There are 'exotic pet incident' lists by PETA, Born Free, and the popular Florida-based Big Cat Rescue but some do not separate fatalities from injuries and often include ‘incidences’ that didn’t involve any injurious attacks. Due to this, there is a lot of confusion about how common fatal attacks are in the United States and what the risk is to the uninvolved public (those who did not own, live with, or attend the animal).
I've compiled and thoroughly examined not only cases of captive exotic felines killing humans, but ‘severe’ injuries sustained as a result of animal attacks as well.
Table of Contents
- Methods: How I got my results
- Big Cat Rescue's Claims Debunked
- Zoos vs. Pet owners
- Attacks Since 1990 (including fatalities)
- Trends in attack incidences
- The type of species involved (what cat was the most common attacker?)
- Synopsis of events
- Comparison to domesticated dogs
- Uninvolved public (how many people were involuntarily exposed and injured/killed by an escaped exotic cat?)
- List and description of all fatal attacks, and commentary
- How many fatalities were caused by "pet" big cats?
How I Did It
Going through Big Cat Rescue's immense incident list proved to be a challenge and required months of research and categorization (and do-overs). First I used Big Cat Rescue's list, then I examined PETA's 'Big Cat Incident List' compilation and found around ten injuries that weren't on Big Cat Rescue's document. I found a few that weren't on either.
From Big Cat Rescue's Big Cat Attacks list, I removed:
- Incidences occurring outside the United States.
- Incidences that did not result in any human injury (animal injuries also removed).
- Attacks that did not result in serious injury.
Because my sample size only contains incidences occurring in the United States (the country of which the regulations are being proposed and where private exotic pet owners are prominent) in the range of 1990 to 2014, I removed all the incidences in foreign countries which reduced the list substantially. This will decrease the margin of error and make the results completely relevant to our current standards of captive animal care. Also, smaller reports on animal attacks are more readily accessible when they are domestic.
Then, I removed the big cat ‘incidences’ that did not result in human injury or death, such as escaped and confiscated animals. While animals like servals and caracals are most definitely not big cats, I left them in. I left in any ‘injury’ that I couldn’t confirm as non-serious (here is an example of an omitted attack "suffered no visible injuries"), and I attempted to verify all incidences through a non-biased source.
I organized the events according to the nature of the facility and situation leading up to the attack to look for interesting trends. I was very, very lenient with adding incidences to the list. A good portion of them are not horrendous injuries.
Big Cat Rescue's Claims Debunked?
What I found: Big Cat Rescue destroyed their data's credibility when they decided to include in their list 'incidences' that did not involve any attacks and no way to filter out the insubstantial data. Some examples include:
"Nicki Phung, 31 and Steven Tieu, 38, admitted in federal court to trying to illegally import a real, stuffed tiger into the United States."
"May 28, 2003 Nampa, ID: At a roadside zoo called For the Birds, where visitors are allowed to pet tigers, a toddler was jumped on and licked by a 170-pound tiger."
"Julie Johnson’s fears were eased after a man rescued her pet bobcat, who got himself stuck in a tree a week ago and would not come down. "
"A pet serval was turned in, no questions asked, at an exotic pet amnesty day sponsored by the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission."
"A 400 pound DEAD tiger escaped from the back of a truck as the vehicle swerved on Highway 99 in on the way to a lab for a necropsy."
(That last one is the most baffling.) Note: You can use ctrl + F to locate these incidences on the list.
This seems deceitful for two reasons. One, this section of the website is under the tab "Big Cat Attacks", and then modifies that statement to "Yearly Maulings Killings and Escapes by Big Cats" further down the page. But there is information on the list that doesn't even fit this criteria, as has been irrefutably proven. Why is there no separate list that discusses animal attacks only?
If Big Cat Rescue has chosen to include any negative incident involving captive big cats, the list will be extremely inaccurate because not every little scratch, small pet escape, or animal abandonment will be accessible online, just as they wouldn't be for dogs and cats, which are routinely involved in the same types of 'incidences'.
Also, why is there a photo of Charla Nash, victim of a chimpanzee attack, posted on the page with the vague caption "Mauled by a Privately Owned Exotic Pet Who Escaped"? To provide a shock value photo that doesn't apply to the subject (exotic cat incidences) being discussed at all? This is not the first time I've noticed deceptive tactics from Big Cat Rescue—another example is the listings on their page 911 Animal Abuse.
PETA's list (download) is superior because it only includes USA-based incidences but still has non-injurious attacks (including the 'licking' incident).
The Federal ban on big cat sales across state lines as pets has helped slow the escalation of events, but a full ban on possession is needed
— Big Cat Rescue
Zoos vs. Pet Owners
The above statement, Big Cat Rescue supported with big cat 'incidences' in the USA that includes at least 80 zoological facilities and at least 49 of these (more than half) were or are currently accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). These incidences have nothing to do with privately owned pets.
The number of big cat 'incidences' surged in the 2000s, vs. the 90's, and Big Cat Rescue issued this statement:
"The U.S. represents less than 5% of the entire global population, but up through 2006 79% of ALL captive cat incidents occurred in the U.S."
This statement cannot be determined by their list because it includes a vague criteria for the 'incidences' and depends on the internet or their personal knowledge for information. Included are even casual statements from individuals (ex. Inside Edition filmed an employee of G.W. Exotic Animal Park saying that just last month he was mauled by a six-month-old tiger and that “There was blood everywhere. It was a total, total mess!”) that they just happened to find.
Throughout my research, unsurprisingly, as the dates got earlier, it became more difficult to verify the incidences. I could not find any remnants of reports for the incidences that occurred in 1990, of which there were 4, compared to 2004's 20 attacks. Many big cat attacks that did not involve an incredibly severe injury or a fatality appear to be non-existent online, but all fatalities were documented online.
Problems with inaccuracies also existed for both lists. I listed a serval attack (animal owned by Corinne Oltz) as 'severe' because the punctures were described as "bone deep" on the list. However, someone on the news report was quoted as saying "From what I heard, it was nothing serious," Killam said. "It was very minor." What's more concerning, PETA's list had another 11 year old victim, in a similar scenario, with a date that was one day away, only the child was attacked by a leopard.
"In 2001, a leopard attacked a child at a birthday party, and Ms. Oltz got
Further research seemed to confirm that the serval and leopard incident were the same. Logic let's me guess that the animal was a serval, not a leopard.
The 'incident' lists and statistics derived from them are flawed. While both entities acknowledge that the documents are partial lists only, their collection criteria needs to be refined in order to determine any possible trends in the sample. Including any negative incident involving exotic cats is too broad of a category, and surely many scenarios of this nature don't make the news. We should only assess public safety threat by the available information that we have where the public has been injured.
Fatalities are highly unlikely to not be reported, so they provide more nutritive information when comparing their occurrences by year. If Big Cat Rescue is correct in their position, they should not need to skew their data so blatantly.
Here Are the Real Facts: Attacks Since 1990 (Including Fatalities)
Before we proceed, a few quick definitions:
- "Severe injury": can be any injury requiring hospitalization. This ranges from needing stitches for a 4 inch gash to being paralyzed for life.
- "Zoological facility": can include unaccredited (or accredited by less 'respected' organizations like ZAA) 'road side zoos' that are open to the public and AZA-accredited facilities (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) that are the 'top dogs' of professional zoos (i.e. Bronx Zoo, San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld). Lack of accreditation by no means suggests a zoo is a bad zoo, but this tends to be the case for many on the list. Some facilities have lost or recently earned AZA accreditation.
- "Private exhibitor": I've included this category to distinguish more 'professionally run' attractions from pet owners who've obtained a USDA license in order to exhibit, breed, or both (those with USDA licenses are generally exempt from private ownership bans depending on the state). This group can be considered private owners, but with a business attached (USDA does not issue licenses for pets). Some roadside zoos can possibly fit in this category, but I've listed them as zoos if they are established, regularly open to the public, hire workers, and are seen as an attraction with a 'Yelp' page.
- "Private owner": True pet owners, just as you own your dog. They are not open to the public. The animals were purchased and owned purely for the owner's pleasure. No attached business. With limited information available, some individuals with USDA licenses might be listed here.
- "Circus/Performing Animal": Animals that perform being used as a business.
- "Sanctuaries/Charities": Any facility that is a 501 (C)(3) or accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (an animal rights organization). This is to distinguish facilities that have gone through some form of non-easily awarded selection process. Some facilities have recently earned such accreditation. Many are or were former exotic pet owners (including Big Cat Rescue).
Type of Facility
Example: 2010 Incident, Keeper in Cage
Trends in Attack Incidences
All of these numbers are approximations to account for any errors I might have made with the numbers or appropriate categorization, and the undeniable presence of less serious attacks that have not been documented online. Some incidences on the list did not state the name of the facility or owner, and I couldn't determine the nature of the situation. No incidences were placed in more than one category.
There Were Approximately:
- 8 incidences where an attack occurred because a zookeeper didn't properly secure the lock outdoor before entering the cage for cleaning.
- 100 attacks from animals performing in a show, in the cage with the keeper, or being taken for a walk in public (direct contact).
- 25 attacks were from escaped exotic cats.
- 18 attacks from authorized contact (petting) with the cats.
- 38 attacks from unauthorized contact with the cats (zoo visitor jumping barriers, break-ins, etc.).
- 3 attack from a leashed, unattended animal to a member of the public.
- 1 accidental fall in the enclosure
- 28 incidents where big cats attacked by reaching out through the enclosure (attempts were not being made to touch the animal).
- 7 attacks from animals being moved from one cage to another.
- 4 incidences that didn't fall in any of the above categories.
- 27 incidences where sufficient information to determine the mode of attack (but not the type of owner) was not available.
1990–2014 Species Involved in Attacks
Asian Jungle Cat
Lion AND Tiger
What the Data Is (and Isn't) Telling Us
Securing this information of attacks from any non-domesticated feline over a 25 year span out of all 50 states, despite the fact that I have little doubt that many less severe incidences went unreported, is highly revealing about the threat that captive big cats pose towards the public when they are maintained under traditional 'dangerous animal' standards.
Unsurprisingly, big cats are the most dangerous when being directly contacted instead of being confined to a cage. It is perfectly feasible for zoos and private owners to never contact the cats or use extreme caution. It is even easier for anyone who does not want to put themselves at risk to stay out of the cage.
People who break the rules of interaction with big cats, such as visitors and volunteers sticking hands in cages, constitute a significant portion of the list. This list can be bigger as I couldn't verify if someone was doing something unauthorized in other incidences (and people would be inclined to lie about such actions).
We can determine from the data that irresponsible conduct around cats puts individuals at the highest risk of injury. Many incidences took place at now defunct road size zoos, exhibitor facilities, and pet owners with questionable practices. Many of these facilities were justifiably closed. (Fun fact, Big Cat Rescue, under the name Wildlife on Easy Street, appears on the list twice).
Canine Fatality Statistics
Exotic cat incidences compared to domesticated dogs. Even though there are millions of dogs compared to the thousands of big cats in the U.S., take into consideration that around 80% of owned dogs weigh under 40 pounds, while 100% of big cats weigh 70+ pounds (starting with cheetahs, even though they aren't technically big cats). This makes most dogs in the U.S. ill-equipped to kill an able-bodied human, while 100% of adult big cats can kill in seconds.
Dogs are also more likely to cause injury because they are traditionally less confined and allowed access to children (the most common victims), but unless there are prospects for big cat owners to start treating lions like pomeranians in the future, this is irrelevant. What matters is the public safety threat, not fantasy hypothetical situations. Dogs undoubtedly threaten human life uniquely to inherently dangerous exotics (injuries and fatalities are widely dependent on environment, reproductive status, nature of care, and misreading of their behavior) but the results are still important.
Collectively, domesticated dogs caused the deaths of more humans last year (2014) than all exotic cats have in 25 years. Given the inherent danger of big cats (NOT small to medium-sized cats and cheetahs), this is surprising. This means that collectively, big cats in captivity are managed well enough to minimize severe injuries and fatalities, contrary to what animal rights organizations are claiming.
25 Years of Exotic Cat Attacks
Total Number of Incidences: 259
Mean Injuries+Fatalities per year: 10.36
Median Injuries+Fatalities per year: 9
Mean and Median of Fatalities per year: 1
Mode Fatalities: 0
Based on the trend line, it appears that the injury rates, based on the information recorded, have increased from the early 90's to the mid 00's and then decreased around 2005-2014. We can expect injury rates to appear to correlate with years where the internet is more common in society, as we are using mostly internet sources for the data.
The fatality rate, which is far more reliable in terms of actually obtaining all the incidences, has no significant trend. Surprisingly, there were zero fatalities in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, but 2 in 2013. So, are the low death rates occurring after the Big Cat Safety Act due to more regulation and bans, or are they just a coincidence? While bans on exotic cats remove all private owners from the equation, good and bad, licensed exhibitors, 'sanctuaries', and accredited zoos, which are a significant portion of the injuries and fatalities, are not harmed by them. A call for better regulation of all facilities holding dangerous cats can likely be effective at lowering death and injury rates.
Dog Attack Rates
Here is some interesting perspective on the exotic cat injury numbers. The CDC states that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and one in five dog bites results in injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Around 885,000, require medical attention for dog bite-related injuries (and I would guess a near-equivalent amount of dogs per human victim), which is my criteria for the exotic cat listings.
Let's say that 80 million people own dogs. This is around 1.11% of the dog population that have caused 'severe' injury. Let's say there's 8000 big cats in the United States. According to the list, on average, there are 10.36 injuries and deaths, and this come out to 0.13% of the exotic cat population. Of course, as I said earlier, there are probably unreported injuries. If we guesstimate 30 incidences per year, that is .38% for the cats. What does this tell us? Dog and exotic cat fatalities and injuries are rare. Who cares which figure is larger?
The Canine Research Council has this to say about dog bite-related fatalities:
"Dog bite-related fatalities are extremely rare.
Dog bite-related human fatalities have always been exceedingly rare, though they can attract the kind of publicity that creates an impression that they are more prevalent than they actually are.
Responsible pet ownership is key to prevention.
All dog owners have an unequivocal responsibility for the humane care, including providing a license and permanent id, spaying or neutering their dogs, providing training, socialization, proper diet, and medical care, and not allowing a pet to become a threat or a nuisance."
Remove the word 'dog' and put in 'exotic cat'. All the same criteria applies, with possibly the exception of neutering and licensing (big cats should be registered with their prospective states). Exotic cats can be properly maintained in spacious enclosures of, yes, the backyards of private owners. It can, has, and is being done for conservation, personal pleasure and educational reasons, but many of the best caretakers generally turn themselves into 'sanctuaries' in order to avoid falling victim to exotic animal bans.
- 10 Small Exotic Cats That Are Kept As Pets
Medium to small sized exotic cats pose no danger to the public. Only 11 completely non-fatal incidences have been recorded.
What we should do: Appropriately-designed regulations can make rare big cat attack incidences even rarer. I've created a prototype of how dangerous exotic pet laws can be shaped without banning them . This article includes almost any species someone can privately own and takes animal welfare into full consideration.
In the last 25 years, how many members of the uninvolved public were attacked in the USA?
This is an extremely important question. In order to verify the claim that 'captive exotic cats are dangerous to the public' and people's fears that privately owned big cats may escape and cause fatalities such as domesticated dogs do annually, we need to assess how many of these incidences actually involved someone that did not make the decision to visit the animal, either caged or directly contacted. If we can secure that non-involved members of the public are rarely attacked by out-of-control exotic felines, this would make an unwanted encounter with a captive exotic cat highly unlikely to occur towards anyone that actively avoids zoos, private owners, and circuses. We already know that attacks are rare to begin with, particularly if you aren't getting in the cage with a big cat or sticking your hand in, but how rare are incidences of escaped cats causing injuries or fatalities?
Uninvolved Public Incidences (Possibly 6)
- December 4, 2010, Union Grove, AL: Frank Harmes was attacked by a black panther near his Marshall County home.
- June 7, 1997, Scappoose, OR: A woman suffered deep puncture wounds to the neck and post-traumatic stress disorder when she was attacked by a neighbor’s pet leopard
- September 16, 1996, Crystal Beach, TX: A declawed pet lioness died after she was shot and tranquilized by a deputy. The lioness attacked a man after a burglar had apparently set her free.
- March 22, 1994, Beech Grove, AR: A 150-pound declawed pet cougar escaped and attacked a 71-year-old year neighbor, inflicting deep bite wounds to the man’s shoulder and arm.
- August 11, 1993, Georgetown, OH: Two teenage boys suffered facial cuts when a lion attacked one, and the other attempted to intercede. The boys were walking when a “pet” lion escaped from his cage and attacked them unprovoked.
- June 1, 1991, Anderson County, SC: A pet lion escaped from a backyard chain-link fenced enclosure and attacked a 5-year-old Julie Holbrooks girl and her grandmother. The girl required stitches. The lion’s owner later shot and killed the lion.
Additional information: I could not confirm that the panther that attacked Frank Harmes was an actual escaped captive animal. It is possible that the animal could have been a melanistic wild mountain lion or Florida panther, which Harmes allegedly believes it is, or even not a big cat at all, given how often they are frequently misidentified.
I could not find any information about the 1997 Oregon woman so I just assumed she was not involved with the animal. I also couldn't find any details about the lioness that 'attacked a man' after it was set free, allegedly by a bugler.
I omitted an incident involving a lynx that was an actual case of a non-involved member of the public being attacked because there was no serious injury, however, you may include this if you like.
The Undeniable Verdict
Anyone who does not knowingly visit places where exotic cats are being held has an almost non-existent, but not impossible, chance of being mauled by one.
Without the Frank Harmes incident, no uninvolved member of the public has been seriously injured enough (to make the news) by an escaped exotic cat in the last decade. No uninvolved person has been killed by an escaped exotic cat in the last 25 years, and this time span probably extends much further.
The Fatal Attacks
Now for a discussion of the fatal attacks that have occurred in the USA in the last 25 years due to a non-domesticated feline. It is highly unlikely fatalities will not be recorded online and attract news media attention, so we have some level of certainty that this list is comprehensive.
Nov. 9, 2013, Sherwood, OR: Renee Radziwon-Chapman, a 35 yr old woman was killed after she was bitten by a cougar at WildCat Haven. She was alone at the facility at the time. News reports stated that fire crews have had a difficult time reaching the worker because there are several cats loose within the enclosure where Chapman was found dead. Renee was survived by her husband, Aaron Chapman, a former worker at the facility and their 5-month-old daughter, Noa Elise. WildCat Haven is the lifetime home for more than 60 neglected, abandoned, and abused captive-born wildcats.
Being in the enclosure with a big cat is risky enough, but doing so while alone and cleaning is tremendously dangerous. You should never turn your back to a big cat. The victim had expressed concerns about her safety prior to the day of the incident.
Another 2013 Incident
March 6, 2013 Fresno, CA: A 24-year-old intern named Dianna Hanson was mauled to death while inside a cage with a four-year-old male lion named Cous Cous.
Hanson was the victim of an occupational hazard and human error. A lock out cage used to separate the animals from the main enclosure was accidentally left open and the director has stated that the lion likely broke her neck in its excitement greeting her.
"How and why he [Cous Cous] did that is kind of a mystery," Anderson said. "He came out of the cage and saw somebody. Did he run in to her? Did he hit her? We don't know. When you say attacked, it sounds gruesome, but it sounds like he just knocked her down and broke her neck."
October 29, 2008, Broken Arrow, OK: A liger named Rocky may be killed for mauling to death a volunteer named Peter Getz who walked in the cage while feeding the cat a deer carcass. The mauling happened in the presence of more than 40 preschoolers who were ushered away from the scene.
Another death that has occurred while the keeper was feeding the animal in the enclosure alone, which is extremely dangerous.
December 25, 2007 San Francisco, CA: A Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped at the San Francisco zoo and killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa, who was in the cafe, and mauled two other young men before police arrived on the scene and fatally shot the animal.
This animal severely mauled a zookeeper in 2005 which was not listed by Big Cat Rescue. The three victims were possibly intoxicated and/or high on marijuana and possibly were taunting the tiger, prompting it to climb out of its enclosure and pursue them. Regardless, the zoo was at fault for the enclosure failing to be escape-proof.
Another 2007 Incident
February 24, 2007, Denver, CO: A 27-year-old Denver Zookeeper, Ashlee Pfaff, who has worked at the zoo for a year, was mauled to death by a 6 yr old, 140 lb jaguar named Jorge as she was working inside the animal’s cage. It is unclear why the zookeeper entered the animal’s enclosure while the jaguar was in it.
A common theme of these severe attacks are people entering the enclosure inexplicably. Pfaff opened the cage door to the jaguar enclosure and violated two zoo protocol rules in doing so. This incident was a tragedy entirely due to human error.
April 6, 2006, Duxbury (15 Mi. E. of Sandstone) MN: Cindi Gamble was mauled by one of her tigers at the USDA inspected Center for Endangered Cats (this is an example of a licensed exotic pet owner that I do not list as a public zoo) that she co-owned with Craig Wagner.
The tiger in this incident was underweight and poorly cared for, although the body wasn't consumed. The reported care of the animals suggests extremely irresponsible pet care standards.
August 18, 2005, Mound Valley, KS: (AP) A Siberian tiger attacked and killed a teenage girl (Haley R. Hilderbrand) who was posing for photos at a family-run animal facility (exotic pet owner business) called Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary.
An unfortunate risk of allowing the public to come into contact with adult big cats are spontaneous attacks by animals that are not 100% predictable, as all animals are. While attacks by well-socialized animals are uncommon the risk to people who do not live with animal is too high.
February 13, 2004, Elizabethtown, IL (AP): A 52-year-old Hardin County man (Allison Brent Abell) who kept exotic animals was apparently attacked and killed Thursday by a pet African lion, authorities said. During the autopsy, a coroner found that the man had suffered numerous puncture wounds and a broken neck. The lion was discovered running loose on the property and was shot and killed by police.
This accident occurred in a USDA-licensed facility, and the circumstances behind it are not clear.
December 14,2003 Millers Creek, NC: Ruth Bynum’s 400-pound Bengal tiger fatally mauled her 10-year-old nephew, Clayton James Eller, after pulling him under a fence and into his cage, authorities said. The cat was kept behind the family’s home in a cage that allowed the family dog to run in and out of the cage.
The boy, Clayton James Eller, was shoveling snow Sunday afternoon near the tiger’s cage, an enclosure made of chain link “This little boy got too close, and it pulled him under the fence,” Coroner Howard Laney said. The boy’s uncle, James Marshall Eller, heard Clayton scream and saw the tiger dragging the boy into its cage.
Sheriff Dane Mastin said Eller tried in vain to get the tiger off the boy, then ran and got his gun and shot the tiger to death. But it was too late to save the boy. The boy’s mother, Angela Eller, had left the boy in the care of her sister Ruth Bynum, the tiger’s owner, while she went to work, Mastin said. James Eller is the brother of the two women.
Because the family's dog was allowed free access to a tiger and a 10-year-old was working so closely to the animal, it can be assumed that the family keeping the tiger underestimated the danger involved.
Another 2003 Incident
April 2, 2003 Adair, OK: Several tigers belonging to the International Wildlife Center of Texas and boarded at Safari Joe’s Rock Creek Exotic Animal Park attacked and killed a handler. One tiger grabbed her arm and pulled her into the cage as she was giving them water, and other tigers in the cage pounced on her.
Another keeper tried to help, but things got only worse. “The first one grabbed her and the rest of them joined in,” says Mayes County Deputy Charles McGuire. “The other girl who was there grabbed a shovel and joined in and beat the tigers to get them away from her and that’s when they removed the deceased’s left arm.” Bracket was brought to Tulsa for treatment, but she died.
The victim was not in the cage, but was bitten severely enough to die from loss of blood. Whether not a mistake was made is not clear.
A Third 2003 Incident
March 31, 2003 Hennepin, IL: As William Olsen entered their pen to shift them to another enclosure, he was mauled to death by two tigers he kept in a backyard menagerie. Police shot and killed both tigers in order to retrieve the body. This was the second incident at the Second Nature Exotic Cats Sanctuary (see May 26, 2002/Hennepin, Ill.).
Another incident of a private owner entering the enclosure, the animal was probably agitated as the owner was trying to get it to move.
October 10, 2001 Lee County, TX: A 3-year-old boy was killed by one of three of a relative’s (Kerry Quinney) “pet” tigers as he was about to have his picture taken with the animals. The 250-pound tiger snatched the boy from the arms of an adult, clamped down on his leg, and dragged him around the enclosure, causing head injuries.
Animals are not 100% predictable and small children are at a high risk of being seen as prey by tigers that only see adult humans as authority figures. Small children should never be in the vicinity of an unconfined sub-adult to adult big cat, and possibly not even medium-sized cats.
Another 2001 Incident
July 31, 2001 Center Hill, FL: A 500-pound tiger mauled and killed Vincent Lowe who was making cage repairs at a roadside zoo called Savage Kingdom. The man had suffered a fatal bite to his neck and severe injuries to his head, arm, and ribs.
It is unclear to me if the tiger was in the same cage as Lowe and his coworker, but it sounds like they had entered the cage to make repairs. Turning your back on a big cat is a fatal error. When risky enclosure entering is attempted, handlers should be aware of the animal at all times.
A Third 2001 Incident
March 25, 2001 Las Vegas, NV: A tiger with Safari Wildlife attacked and killed his handler Eric Bloom. The tiger put his paw on the man’s back, pushed him down, and bit his throat. The handler died within minutes from loss of blood. The tiger was used for photo ops, motion pictures and advertisements. Another handler was hospitalized with injuries to his knees and puncture wounds.
This is one example of the inherent risks that is involved when working with big cats. The attack was quick and without warning, with an animal that was well-trained and human-socialized.
June 7, 1999, Yorktown, TX: A 9-year-old girl was killed when her stepfather’s “pet” tiger grabbed her by the neck and dragged her into a water trough.
Lauren Casey Villafana entered the cage as her stepfather, Bobby Hranicky, groomed one of his pet tigers. She went to pet a female lion when she was attacked by the male. Young children should never be in enclosures with big cats. Their prey instinct can easily be triggered by small, oftentimes frightened, movements of children.
Territorial defense can also be to blame for the lion's behavior. Young children that live with owners of dangerous animals are the only victims that cannot control whether or not they want to be around the animals, and it is up to the parents to be responsible for them around dangerous activities. Similar bad parenting occurs when children are not supervised around domesticated dogs, which leads to injury and death.
November 13, 1998, Newberry, FL: The same tiger who killed his trainer on 10/8/98 attacked and killed his owner Doris Guay. The tiger was shot dead.
The animal killed its trainer a few weeks prior. How well a big cat works with humans is often dependent on the individual personalities of the animals.
October 8, 1998 Newberry, FL: A tiger attacked and killed his trainer, Joy Holiday AKA Joy Guay, at the Holiday’s Cat Dancer facility. The tiger had been used in the operation’s traveling animal show and featured in Shrine circuses.
There are numerous big cat trainers but there are no more than 24 fatalities and 300 severe injuries caused by captive big cats in a 25 year time frame, which means this fatality was a freak tragedy with an even more dangerous individual animal.
May 7, 1997, Carrollton, PA: A tiger used in the Franzen Bros. Circus killed a trainer Wayne Franzen in front of 200 horrified schoolchildren.
It was claimed by investigators that Franzen's shiny costume might have triggered the tiger to attack because it hadn't seen it before. We can never know for sure what causes unprovoked spontaneous attacks by human-socialized animals as no animals are 100% predictable.
Another 1997 Incident
April 29, 1997, Oklahoma City, OK: A leopard escaped from his cage killed a woman Eunice Esquivel at an exotic animal “sanctuary.” Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the leopard seven hours later when he was found along a road nearly a half-mile from Oak Hill Center for Rare and Endangered Species.
Eunice Esquivel, 52, was killed by an escaped leopard at the Oak Hill Center for Rare and Endangered Species in Oklahoma City. She was visiting her son who worked there and had gone to feed the animals, which she reportedly had done before. In my research, escaped animals tend to be more deadly if the victim is in the direct vicinity of its enclosure. This is probably due to territorial instincts.
October 29, 1995, Allegan, MI: While her 9-year-old daughter watched in horror, a woman was attacked and killed by a “pet” lion after she entered his cage at the home of a friend who collected exotic animals. The friend was severely injured when he tried to stop the attack.
Diana Renner (30) was mauled by Clem Dubose's privately owned lion when she inexplicably stepped into the cage while Dubose and a neighbor were renovating the enclosure. The reports suggest she was inexperienced with the animal as she was described as 'scared', causing the lion to react and attack.
Another 1995 Incident
March 5, 1995 Washington, DC: A woman was fatally mauled by lions after climbing into their enclosure at the National Zoo. The body was so battered and shredded so violently that her fingerprints were gone and her face unrecognizable.
Margaret Davis King was homeless and mentally ill, suffering from religious delusions. Her decision to enter the lion's enclosure might not have been suicidal, as one of the only stories I remember from Bible studies in my childhood is that of God shutting the mouths of lions to save a condemned prisoner because of his unshakable Christian beliefs.
King intentionally climbed over a 3 1/2-foot barrier, crossed a four-foot-wide dirt buffer, dropped down a nine-foot wall into a water-filled moat, and swam 26 feet across the moat to reach the lion's enclosure. The territorial instincts of animals that are not used to human interaction took over and she was killed. No one was at fault in this case.
June 7, 1994 Miami, FL: A senior zookeeper with 20 years’ experience was mauled and killed by a tiger at Miami Metrozoo.
Experienced zookeeper David Marshall ignored warning signs that the tiger was present in the enclosure and entered it, inexplicably. This lapse of judgement was a preventable, occupational hazard.
TORCH, Ohio October 22, 1992: A "liger," a cross between a lion and a tiger, dragged a keeper into its cage at a safari park and killed him, authorities said. Everett Cremeans, 45, had removed a bar that held the cage gate in place and was using it to prod the animal when he was mauled Tuesday.
The keeper had unlocked a cage door and attempted to prod the animal in another direction when he was mauled. This was a case of human error and bad luck.
How many deaths from "pet" big cats?
It's hard to say because it depends on what you call a pet. Many facilities that are called pet owners by activists are licensed or registered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a requirement for commercial exhibitors. All zoos that are accredited by the AZA are also USDA licensed.
Groups like the Humane Society often paint the impression that tigers and lions are causally purchased by 'regular' people as one might a dog or cat. Big Cat Rescue states that no one knows how many "backyard" owners that aren't licensed exist in America. In terms of big cat-related fatalities, the majority occur in USDA facilities, and there are far more of these unaccredited (by AZA) facilities than there are AZA-accredited facilities. In the last 25 years (1990-2014) two people have been killed by non-licensed pet owners' animals.
***No license Pet
Big cats are inherently dangerous but that doesn't mean they can't be maintained safely and responsibly in a captive environment. The nature of the facility—pet owner, zoological facility, or accredited by respected entities—plays little part in securing the safety of the people who work with the animals and the general public. The importance of sturdy, well-made cages that adhere to the appropriate regulations and the use of staff or owners who are of the appropriate age to be the only individuals working with or maintaining large exotic felines cannot be underestimated. Cheetahs and other exotic cats not considered 'big cats' are substantially less dangerous.
Big cat attacks are mostly preventable, human error and direct contact playing the biggest part in injurious attacks. Swift action taken out by owners, staff, and authorities during the event of an escaped big cat(s) has kept incidents of the cats harming members of the uninvolved public very low—around 6 cases have been reported in the last 25 years. Despite the extreme rarity of fatalities and injuries to people who are not in the cage with or in very close proximity to the animals, common sense regulations that address both safety and animal welfare can be carried out in all states that can lower even these numbers yet allow citizens their freedom or choice in business or lifestyle opportunities involving exotic animals.
I've written this article honestly, and I obviously support pet ownership, including larger, more dangerous species, if it is ethically and responsibly conducted. I believe that the truth supports my arguments, and that's why I harbor my brand of opinions. If any of my facts are incorrect here, I am unaware of it or made a mistake. My beliefs are subject to change based on available evidence. I have no plans at this point in owning, breeding, or "exploiting" any big cats other than attending zoos. I currently own a spotted genet.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Melissa A Smith
Splashstorm on June 11, 2020:
Of the two that attacked their owners, what species were they?
Sam on July 02, 2019:
You beileve PETA
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 02, 2016:
L Haas read the title, this article isn't about that.
L Haas on November 29, 2016:
Wow,your article makes me want to raise a lion or tiger. Why shouldn't these animals be raised by humans in a controlled and much smaller area than they naturally should be. I guess that it's nurture not nature with these cats. You make it sound like 'there is no such thing as a feral/wild/bad lion or tiger, just a bad owner. You seem to be using the 'pit bull' strategy of how cute and cuddly pit bulls and large cats are. I have never raised either, but then I am certain that you have. Outside of human owners being injured you don't talk much about how bored these cats are in their artificial and small environments. But then again I am certain that 'you know better. Thank you.
Kaycee on August 31, 2016:
Roland: Read Melissa's articles about that, I think you have much to learn.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 25, 2016:
Roland on August 14, 2016:
Big cats should never be bred for any purpose except for species conservation by accredited parties. Big cats belong in the wild. They should never be domestic pets.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on July 27, 2016:
Joe Exotic: I believe that statement was taken from the words of one of your employees.
Joe Exotic on July 15, 2016:
I would like to know when and who was mauled by a six month old tiger and blood was everywhere at G.W. Exotic Animal Park. That is very false.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 27, 2016:
Nah, sometimes animals just do things for no reason.
Tarrah Dunaway on May 25, 2016:
animals who are treated wrong will show you wrong.
Taranwanderer on May 23, 2015:
They're pretty much all wild, in the sense that one wrong move can make you prey. Cats attack instinctively to a smaller person running away from them - just look at domesticated kittens in the household. I love Big Cats, but they are not to be trifled with. https://discover.hubpages.com/education/Wild-Cats-...
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on April 10, 2015:
Was that a WILD cougar WhiteMuse?
WhiteMuse on April 10, 2015:
I understand this idea. I saw Born Free. But wild cats are dangerous and you are prey to them. There was a cougar that killed a woman in Calif. It had bitten her and was eating her while she was still alive.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 03, 2015:
Unfortunately much of the information here will not be 100% accurate because the news media is notorious for getting things wrong.
PSWendy on February 03, 2015:
Thank you Melissa~ There were many errors in the initial media reports.
They reported that Dianna was talking on her cell phone- this was false as her cell phone was charging in the food prep area. She did have her radio with her and had been communicating with the other zoo keeper. It was also reported that she was showing the lion to her Italian boyfriend. She did not have a boyfriend. We know for a fact that the guillotine door was found in the fully open position and because of the way it operates, it would be impossible for the lion to have opened the door. We did an interview with Piers Morgan to show how the door operates after the accident.
jagdale on February 03, 2015:
Thank you Melissa for the correction. The press had a terrible time getting the story correct because of the grandstanding erroneous comments made by the Fresno Coroner. The press believed him because he was a governmental official and they were looking for anything to print. Everything he said was false except for the cause of death. After the Sheriff made a statement clearing the record, the LA Times reporter said to one of our people, "if there is no negligence, there isn't story" and she left without reporting anything else. The Fresno Coroner has since been demoted and moved under the Sheriff Dept. Dianna was a good keeper and just made a mistake.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 02, 2015:
PSWendy-- The Daily Mail article makes it sound like the lion did force the door open, but because it was not secured all the way. Regardless, I've updated everything. The percentages on my pie chart didn't change as I only have 8 incidences now with gate errors so everything is good now.
PSWendy on February 02, 2015:
I also wanted to add~ When we feed the cats, we do not have direct contact but feed them in a "lock-out" system, never coming into contact with the cats. Dianna had several years of experience working (feeding/cleaning etc.) with large cats (lions and tigers) before coming to Project Survival. The term "intern" does not always indicate the absence of experience. She also had 250 hours of supervised training with us before the accident happened. We will never know how or why she forgot to close the guillotine door to the lock-out before entering the main enclosure. It was a tragic human error.
PSWendy on February 02, 2015:
Hi Melissa~ I work with Dale at Project Survival and am sending you the links to the correct reports.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 02, 2015:
Thanks for the correction Dale Anderson, do you have any links I can post? I will have to update the pie graph because I do not have that incident listed as 'keeper forgets to lock door'. From what I understand she was allowed to enter the enclosure with the guillotine door closed?
jagdale on February 02, 2015:
Hi Melissa~ I appreciate the work that you have done to come up with the graphs and other information in this article. The information that you provide about Dianna Hanson/lion is not correct. "A lock out cage used to separate animals from the main enclosure was able to be forced open by the lion and he attacked his keeper, probably due to territorial instinct. As an intern, she wasn't supposed to be allowed inside the cage." This statement is incorrect and you have quoted initial knee-jerk false media information. After the accident was investigated, The Fresno County Sheriff, USDA, California Fish and Wildlife and OSHA all came to the same conclusion- Dianna Hanson left the guillotine door open and made a horrible human error. The lion DID NOT lift the door and in fact, both the USDA veterinarian and Project Survival Cat Haven private veterinarian made statements that it was physically impossible for the lion to have lifted the heavy guillotine door. We can provide links to articles that verify that this accident was caused solely by keeper error. OSHA did not fine nor violate Project Survival and found no negligence. We have spent countless hours trying to get people to know what really happened. This information may not change your graphs and other information but we would like to get the real information correct. Thank you. Dale Anderson Executive Director Project Survival