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Published: Thursday, 1/3/2008

Zoo employees acted heroically during tiger attack, director says

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO - The director of the San Francisco Zoo brushed off criticism yesterday that two victims were denied help in the frantic moments after a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack, saying his employees acted heroically.

The zoo is preparing to open today for the first time since the tiger killed a teenager and injured his two friends, brothers ages 19 and 23.

"I am extremely satisfied that our zoo staff acted appropriately, and I'm very proud of the way that our zoo staff operated that evening," director Manuel Mollinedo said.

He did not detail their actions, citing a police investigation.

"Some of our staff did heroic things, and I hope that eventually they can be recognized for the way they handled some very difficult situations where they actually put their lives on the line," he said.

Mr. Mollinedo made his remarks a day after the lawyer for the attack's two survivors said the zoo was slow in responding to their pleas for help.

Attorney Mark Geragos said his clients, Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, tried to get help for their friend, Carlos Sousa, Jr., 17, after the three were mauled, but were "denied entry" to a cafe where they had fled because the zoo was closing.

The brothers then saw a female security guard who appeared "diffident" when told of the escaped tiger, Mr. Geragos said. The victim was still outside the tiger exhibit dying from a slashed throat.

"Who knows what would have happened if the guard had acted earlier?" Mr. Geragos said late Tuesday. "But Carlos would have stood a better chance of not dying. And maybe the police would not have shot the tiger, as well."

Zoo spokesman Sam Singer dismissed Mr. Geragos' claims as unreliable and noted that the San Francisco police have not finished their investigation.

According to police dispatch logs from the day of the attack, someone inside the cafe called 911 at 5:07 p.m. It is unclear how long before that the brothers tried to notify people in the cafe about the attack.

The dispatch logs also show that zoo employees initially questioned whether early reports of the attack were coming from a mentally unstable person. By 5:10 p.m. zoo employees reported that a tiger was loose, and by 5:13 p.m., the zoo was being evacuated and locked down.

The tiger was shot at 5:27 p.m., logs show.

Zoo officials believe the tiger climbed or jumped out of its enclosure before mauling the three men. The wall surrounding the grotto was 4 feet lower than the recommended height.

Mr. Mollinedo said something prompted the tiger to leave its enclosure, but he wouldn't elaborate. Authorities are looking into what preceded the attack, including the possibility that the victims taunted the tiger.

The tiger area will not be open when the zoo resumes operations today. Fencing will be added to the big-cat enclosure.



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