A SCOTTISH zookeeper mauled to death by a tiger may have been dragged from the safety of a staff enclosure into the big cat’s pen, according to police.
Sarah McClay, 24, was killed by the rare Sumatran tiger as she tended to the animal at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, last Friday.
There had been fears she had taken her own life, but police believe the tiger had somehow escaped from its pen and attacked Ms McClay, who was in the staff area.
Detectives said either “human or mechanical” error could have led to the animal’s escape.
Officers said compartments in the tiger enclosure were connected by lockable doors, but systems in place to ensure staff and animals were kept apart had “failed”.
Park owner David Gill had insisted Ms McClay died because of “keeper error” and said there was “no reason” for her to be in the enclosure with the tigers.
After the attack, Ms McClay, originally from Glasgow, suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to Preston Royal Hospital, where she died of serious head and neck injuries.
Det Chief Insp Bob Qazi, of Cumbria Police, said: “It is vitally important that we discover what exactly happened in the big cat enclosure building that led to Sarah coming into contact with the tiger. I want to emphasise there is no suggestion of any foul play or any issue of suicide or self-harm from the inquiries we have made.
“What has become apparent is that Sarah was going about her routine duties and was in the staff section of the enclosure building, which animals are not allowed access to, when a tiger has entered it from an adjacent pen and confronted her.
“The tiger has then attacked Sarah, taking her from the building into the open-air external enclosure area where Sarah was left and later attended by staff and paramedics.”
Her brother, Stephen McClay, 27, said his family had been hurt by her boss’s comments before the investigation was complete.
Referring to Mr Gill’s statement, he said: “These are unsubstantiated claims. My family and I feel his comments are ill-advised, premature and disrespectful. He’s laying the blame squarely at her door. It has caused hurt to our family.”
Mr Gill said Ms McClay was a “very experienced” staff member who had worked with big cats and was “proficient and passionate” about her job. He described her as a “bubbly, happy girl” and said her death was a “tragedy for her family and all the staff”.
Talking of the tiger involved in the incident, he said it had lived at the park for the ten years since it was a cub and it would not be destroyed.
Ms McClay’s boyfriend, David Shaw, whom she had been with since she was a teenager, posted a message on her Facebook page thanking the public and the paramedics who attended the scene for their support.
It said: “We’d like to thank you all for your kind words. We are still coming to terms with what has happened. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the valiant efforts of Cumbria Ambulance Service, the North West Air Ambulance and the Royal Preston Hospital.
“It may be some time before a full picture emerges of what happened and how this tragic accident came to pass.”
He said a memorial page had been set up to raise donations for his girlfriend’s favourite passion – red squirrel conservation. Last night, it had raised more than £2,700.
After the tiger attack, the park was closed, but it reopened on Saturday.
Mr Gill justified that decision, saying: “The public were not at risk and we followed all our accident procedures to the letter.
“We had a meeting of all staff at 5:30pm and asked what they wanted. There was a huge consensus of opinion that we carry on. It would not do any good to close the park as there is no safety issue.”