Tatiana the Tiger Terrorizes San Francisco Zoo

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Going to the zoo has been an American tradition since the Philadelphia Zoo first opened its doors in 1874.  For well over a century, people from all walks of life have flocked to these living museums, marveling at animals they would otherwise never see (or perhaps even know existed).  But sometimes, these remarkable encounters go horribly wrong, crossing the line from fun to fatal.  A Siberian Tiger named Tatiana caused three serious injuries and one fatality at the San Francisco Zoo, leading to her own demise as well as a tidal wave of costly wrongful death litigation.

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Depending on your personal ethics, zoos can be seen as either scientific sanctuaries or inhumane prisons.  But regardless of the  moral stance you take, there’s one emotion both sides are unlikely to feel: fear.

Indeed, why would you?  It’s not as if the animals are permitted to wander freely among the patrons (with the typical exception of a few dopey peacocks).  The exhibits are fenced off by glass, steel, plastic, netting.  They are locked, enclosed, contained.  Safe.

Or are they?

Tatiana the Tiger Injures 3, Kills 1 at San Francisco Zoo

In 2005, Tatiana the tiger was brought from Colorado to California, taking up residence as the newest addition to the renowned San Francisco Zoo.  Staff members hoped she would produce offspring with Tony, a male tiger already living at the zoo; and with good reason.  Siberian Tigers are extremely endangered, with fewer than 400 specimens living in the wild.

At the time of Tatiana’s inception, there was nothing to raise a red flag: she displayed no history of aggression, much less any full-scale attacks on humans.  Sadly, that would change in the years to come, with a fatal resolution for man and beast alike.

In 2006, zookeeper Lori Komejan was demonstrating a public feeding of Tatiana.  An eager crowd gathered around to watch, but viewers got more than they paid for — or would have wanted to see.

What should have been a routine feeding suddenly went terribly wrong.  The tiger’s powerful jaws clamped down on Komejan’s arm, pulling it between the bars until she was stopped only by her shoulder.  Fortunately, Komejan survived her harrowing ordeal; but not before sustaining serious bite injuries.  Tigers can apply a bite force of over 1,000 pounds, roughly 10 times stronger than a human’s bite.

Then-director Manuel Mollinedo casually dismissed the incident, saying Tatiana was  “acting  as a normal tiger does,” and took no further action.

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Malicious Tormentors, or Innocent Victims?

December 25th is Christmas.  For most Americans, it’s a day of peace, love, and leisure. But for the Dhaliwals and particularly the Sousa family, it has been marred as a day of terror, pain, and death.

On Christmas Day, 2007, Tatiana managed to escape from her enclosure.  She non-fatally injured brothers Kulbir and Amritpal Dhaliwal — but zoo visitor Carlos Sousa, who was with the Dhaliwal brothers at the time of the attack, would not recover from his wounds.  His lifeless body was discovered with multiple scratches, fractures, and blunt force injuries. His jugular had been torn open.

Tatiana was fatally shot by police responding to the scene.

After the incident, blame fell heavily on both predator and prey.  The Dhaliwal brothers were reportedly tight-lipped and belligerent when police arrived on the gory scene.  Sousa died with alcohol in his system, and all three tested positive for marijuana.  Many speculated the visitors had been deliberately harassing Tatiana, a misdemeanor offense.

Others, however, felt the zoo was at fault.  Tatiana’s wall was measured at only 12’6″, when management had previously claimed a height of 18′, and the minimum safe height for containing large cat species was 16’6″.  The wall was a full four feet shorter than it should have been, and nearly six feet shorter than the zoo had stated.  Siberian Tigers are famous for their surreal size as much as their beauty, and females like Tatiana can grow to be as large as eight feet long from head to tail.

After the attack on Sousa and the Dhaliwals, in 2008, the zoo extended the tiger pen walls to reach a height of 19′, including electric wire and glass.  But the human damage had already been done, and a storm of lawsuits followed.

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Tatiana Ultimately Cost Over $1 Million in Damages

Considering the costly legal battles she prompted, Tatiana may have been one of the San Franciso Zoo’s most expensive acquisitions.

Her first victim, zookeeper Lori Komejan, settled with the zoo in 2008.  The amount of the settlement was not disclosed to the public, but damages included multiple skin grafts, multiple surgeries, and permanent loss of full function in the right arm.  Komejan’s attorney stated, “The case was resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.”

Rather than focusing on the zoo like Komejan, the Dhaliwal and Sousa families initially filed a claim against the city of San Francisco itself.  The city denied culpability, pointing to a clause in the zoo’s lease which protects the city from liability for zoo incidents precisely like Tatiana’s attacks.

The families then refocused their legal efforts toward the zoo.  The Dhaliwals alleged slander, denying they had done anything to provoke or harm Tatiana as had been reported in the media, as well as negligence on behalf of personnel leading up to the physical attack.

This time, they had greater success.  The Dhaliwals settled for just short of $1 million, accepting a total of $900,000 for their catastrophic injuries.  The Sousas, like Komejan, ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.  The Sousas’ claim alleged their son had been the victim of wrongful death due to recklessness and negligence.

Amritpal has since passed away.  His family has not disclosed any information regarding the cause of his death, or whether Tatiana’s attack was a contributing factor.

Prior to his death, other attorneys made negative comments about Amritpal related to unrelated criminal charges, including assault, public drunkenness, resisting arrest, and probation violation.  “It’s clear that Paul [Amritpal] Dhaliwal doesn’t seem to understand that he has to live within the requirements of civilized society,” says Santa Clara County Deputy D.A. Stuart Scott.

“One would think that anybody going to the zoo should be equally protected from the animals, no matter what their background,” counters Sousa family attorney Michael Cardoza.  “What do we say? Felons shouldn’t go?”

“For us,” laments Sousa’s mother Marilza, “it’s not Christmas anymore.”

If you or someone you love was attacked by an animal, or if you’ve been injured by someone else’s recklessness or negligence, you may be entitled to compensation.  Call the law offices of personal injury firm The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online. Your initial consultation is absolutely free. 

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