- According to an environmental biology professor from Stanford, zoo animals can’t return to the wild
- The tiger attack happened after the Naples Zoo had closed
- The zoo remained closed a day after Eko mauled the man
The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens’ only tiger was shot and killed by a Collier County sheriff’s deputy trying to free a man whose arm was in the tiger’s mouth.
River Rosenquist, 26, of Naples, a contract employee with a third-party cleaning service, had climbed over an enclosure fence after hours Wednesday and tried to feed or pet the tiger, according to sheriff’s reports. The cleaning crew is supposed to be restricted to the zoo’s restrooms and gift shop and are not allowed in animal enclosures.
The deputy shot the 8-year-old male Malayan tiger, Eko, in an effort to free Rosenquist. There are fewer than 200 Malayan tigers in the wild, and Eko came to the zoo about two years ago as part of a program to ensure the tigers’ future.
In body camera footage released Thursday by the sheriff’s office, Rosenquist screams, “Please, please help me, please,” before shrieking in pain as Collier County deputies approach the tiger’s enclosure.
The grisly video appears to show the tiger’s jaw wrapped around Rosenquist’s arm between his hand and elbow as he braces his body against the enclosure, his leg in the air, his shoulder in the dirt.
Previous coverage:Man bitten by tiger at Naples Zoo taken to Lee Memorial Hospital; tiger shot, killed
Investigation:Naples Zoo supports deputy’s decision to shoot, kill rare Malayan tiger; launches probe
The body camera footage shows the deputy asking bystanders if they have a tranquilizer while Rosenquist continues to try to pull his arm free. Hearing there is none, the deputy shoots the tiger once.
Eko then disappears into the dark.
Emergency workers took Rosenquist to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, where he was in serious condition Thursday.
More on the tiger:Eko the Malayan tiger born in Arkansas, raised in Seattle, transported to Naples in 2020
Bodycam of tiger attack at Naples Zoo: ‘Please, please help me,’ man caught in tiger’s mouth shrieks
Naples Zoo supports decision to shoot the tiger after attack
Zoo officials said they fully support the deputy and the sheriff’s department in making the decision to shoot Eko.
While the zoo has an armed emergency response team, the incident occurred about two hours after the zoo closed for the day and the public had left.
“Our deputy did everything he could do in that situation and he ultimately made the only possible decision he could in order to save this man’s life,” Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said. “This was a tragic encounter at our world-class zoo facility. We value our community partnership with the Naples Zoo and their focus on conservation and education.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Naples Fire-Rescue and Collier County EMS assisted with the rescue and investigation.
Courtney Jolly, the zoo’s marketing and public relations director, said Rosenquist worked for HMI Commercial Cleaning Inc.
Jolly said the man apparently climbed a 4.5-foot fence and approached the tiger habitat. There are no video cameras near the enclosure to record the incident, Jolly said. The 911 call was made at 6:30 p.m., well after the zoo’s closing.
According to state records, HMI Commercial Cleaning incorporated in January.
Those records list Stacy Heidel as president and Steve Heidel as vice president of the company, with an address on Bonita Lane in Naples. Attempts to reach them for comment about the accident or their injured employee were unsuccessful.
‘Why kill the tiger?’ Readers react to the shooting of Naples Zoo animal
Asked how long the zoo has used HMI and whether the company’s executives or employees had to sign any liability waivers or agreements to steer clear of the animals, Jolly said she couldn’t answer those questions.
She also had no comment on whether the zoo would continue using the cleaning service.
“We have never had an issue like this in the past,” Jolly said.
While HMI was established less than a year ago, Steve Heidel isn’t new to the cleaning business.
He owned and operated Heidel Management, a janitorial service in Southwest Florida, for decades. State records show that company incorporated in 1997 and dissolved in 2012, after failing to file an annual report.
According to HMI’s website, Steve Heidel, a graduate of Michigan State University, has more than 25 years of cleaning experience, serving the Southwest Florida market since 1989.
Naples Zoo closed day after tiger attack
Jolly said the zoo staff met Thursday morning after calling in about 30 workers.
“We need to give them space and time (to process this),” she said. The zoo was closed Thursday.
The zoo thanked the community for its support in a statement on its website.
“We thank our community for their understanding and their messages and words of encouragement and support that have been flowing into us,” the statement said.
Gillian Peterson, a seasonal resident from Boston, arrived at the zoo Thursday with her two grown sons and their wives but were turned away.
“This is so sad,” she said. “I’m so sorry for the worker, the tiger and the zoo. It’s just an unfortunate incident.”
Blanca Portanet, 6, a first-grader at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples, who also had arrived to go to the zoo, was heartbroken about Eko’s death.
“I’m kind of feeling sad about that,” she said, adding about the injured man, “I don’t really like people getting hurt.”
Rosemary Kelly, 65, who was riding her bicycle through the parking lot, said the tiger isn’t to be blamed.
“I think that guy was stupid. Ignorant and stupid,” she said.
As the story spread nationally, readers reacted from across Southwest Florida and beyond.
“If an animal can’t be an animal, zoos shouldn’t have them,” wrote Patricia Jenkins of Bonita Springs on the Naples Daily News Facebook page.
“Why kill the tiger? He did nothing wrong,” added Robin Darty Hinson.
“Through no fault of his own, this innocent, beautiful, critically endangered tiger suffered and died because of human selfishness,” said longtime animal rights activist Madeleine Doran of Fort Myers, calling the incident heart-wrenching. “Animals are held captive and humans continue to exploit them for entertainment and greed. It is so unjust.”
Harambe the gorilla, other zoo animal attacks
It’s not the first time a zoo tiger has been killed after contact with a visitor. A female named Tatiana escaped her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007. She attacked three teens, one of whom later admitted to drunkenly taunting and yelling at the tiger. She killed Carlos Eduardo Sousa Jr. before the police shot her.
In 2016, a gorilla was shot and killed after a 3-year-old climbed into the animal’s enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Documentary filmmaker Erik Crown is making a movie about the incident that explores the larger issues surrounding captive zoo animals and species conservation.
Harambe: Cincinnati Zoo gorilla killed after boy falls into pen
Parent-shaming and how the gator attack isn’t Harambe: ‘Harambe was a known animal with a face, name and story’
Sheriff: Body of toddler found after alligator attack near Disney World resort
“One of the big things zoos always tout is their efforts in conservation (and) people think by going to the zoo, that their money is going to go help conservation,” Crown said by phone Thursday.
“What I discovered is — at least in American Association of Zoos and Aquarium zoos (through which Naples Zoo is accredited) — as of 2016, their reported income for all their zoos was $24 billion and their investment into conservation is $160 million, which is about 0.5% of what they take in,” he said. “So in an economic sense, it’s not helping any projects.”
The association did not immediately return a request for comment.
The second issue is species survival plans, which Crown calls “the biggest scam of them all.” The 1973 Endangered Species Act prohibited zoos from importing or paying for endangered animals. Instead, zoos now specialize in breeding endangered species, which they then trade among themselves.
Eko was bred at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which spokeswoman Meghan Sawyer said in an emailed statement is “very sad to hear the news.”
Eko was part of a trio of Malayan tigers that were born on Nov. 12, 2013, at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas, according to the Woodland Park Zoo website. They were transferred to Seattle in 2015.
Instead of reintroducing the animals into the wild, they’re used as attractions for paying customers, Crown says. “Why are we breeding them for our entertainment and not making sure they survive in the wild through sanctuaries or getting land areas where (they) can roam or be somewhere other than these small enclosures?”
According to Stanford University environmental biology professor Elizabeth Hadly, who’s done extensive genetic research on wild and captive tigers, the zoo animals can’t return to the wild.
“These animals have none of the behaviors that are key to survival in the wild, they have not been exposed to their native prey, have not learned to hunt or find mates, and — quite the contrary — they may even have been selected by breeders to be more docile, less picky about food, and more tolerant of cages, concrete and people,” she said in an interview last year.
“Even if we were to surmount these challenges and successfully ‘teach’ these animals how to survive in the wild, we are severely limited by the remaining wild areas in Asia that could house tigers — less than 7 percent of their historic range. The rest is filled with humans, or has been converted to grow our food.”
Ellie Armstrong, a PhD student in Hadly’s lab, said, “In spite of the conservation messages that they tout, very few private tiger facilities in the U.S. actively contribute to the restoration or conservation of wild animals. Breeding — and then rearing — an animal to adulthood in a facility that has few of the environmental conditions of their native range means that viable reintroductions have low chances of success. Indeed, the purpose of these facilities is primarily to make money for the owners of the animals — not for conservation of the species.”
Prominent independent journalist and animal activist Jane Velez-Mitchell says the whole system need to be scrapped.
“The whole set-up is a mess,” she said Thursday. “But we can transition these zoos to sanctuaries … Animal prisons like zoos have been normalized, but the truth is they’re a 19th century — at best — construct.”
She calls Eko’s enclosure “ a glorified cage … and I believe it’s torture,” she said.
Velez-Mitchell also gives Rosenquist the benefit of the doubt.
“This poor being was in extended solitary confinement (and) here’s the thing: This person who reached out probably felt sorry for the animal — that’s the tragic irony. How can you go in there every day and clean and see this poor animal alone in this cage and not as a human being want to reach out? So the tragedy is compounded.”
Naples Daily News reporters and editors also contributed to this report: Chad Gillis, Frank Gluck, Laura Layden, Harriet Heithaus, Michael Braun, Mark Bickel, Dave Osborn, Laura Greanias and others.