Sarah McClay died at South Lakes Wild Animal Park after 'inexplicably' walking into tiger enclosure, where she was mauled
A zoo keeper who was mauled to death by a tiger had no reason to be in its enclosure, according to the animal park's owner.
Sarah McClay, 24, was attacked by a Sumatran tiger at South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, on Friday afternoon. She was taken by air ambulance to Royal Preston Hospital but died later from her injuries.
Cumbria police said the tiger was locked in its enclosure following the attack and that members of the public were not at any risk during the incident. Police and Barrow borough council are investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident.
David Gill, the owner and founder of South Lakes Wild Animal Park, said McClay was very experienced in looking after big cats and he had no explanation as to why she had entered the enclosure.
He told BBC Radio 5 Live: "After investigation by the authorities here and the police, it does seem that she just basically failed to follow the correct procedures.
"For some unknown reason, an inexplicable reason, because there is no reason for why she did it, she opened the door and went into the tiger enclosure and straight into the tigers, and now we'll never know why."
Gill said McClay, who was from the Barrow area, had worked at the wildlife park for a number of years and was "very proficient" in her work with big cats.
He said that it was against strict safety protocols to walk into the tiger's cage, adding that the zoo had passed a major inspection on Monday, in which it was praised for its safety standards.
Gill said: "An emergency call went out over the radio and we responded immediately. I was on the scene within 30 seconds.
"It was just unfortunate that everything happened so quick. It's so difficult to talk about because it was so upsetting.
"We moved all the public back of course. I think one member of the public did witness a part of the attack but I don't think there was anyone else who saw that."
The incident happened at about 4pm, when staff were working as normal and the park was open to the public.
Emphasising that at no point was there any threat to the public, Gill added: "It just seems quite inexplicable. None of us have been able to come up with a really reasonable conclusion.
"All we know is that no one else was involved, there was nobody with her, and for some unknown reason she opened a door and walked straight into the tigers."
Gill described Ms McClay as "a very passionate girl, very enthusiastic" who was "extremely good at delivering conservation talks. A very valued part of our team. A very bubbly character, a very happy girl."
He said that McClay's death was the second tragedy for the park this month, after another employee was killed in a road accident.
He told the BBC there were no plans to have the tiger put down, which has been at the park for 10 years since it was a cub.
Gill said: "He didn't make the mistake. He was just there. It's so difficult because we don't blame him for what has happened.
"It would be very much a tragedy for him. He's one of the rarest animals in the world, a Sumatran tiger, and it's something we don't want to do."
Following McClay's death the staff felt they wanted the park to carry on, Mr Gill said.
"There was a huge consensus of opinion that we should carry on," he added. "It's not the park's fault if you will. It's not going to do anybody any good if we closed."
Police said McClay's family were "very shocked and distressed" and had requested privacy to grieve.
Visitors were asked to leave the wildlife park before it closed early following the incident. It is expected to reopen as normal on Saturday.
It's been quite a week for Britain's first official astronaut. Meeting the prime minister, a press scrum at the Science Museum; and an agonising interview with Jeremy Paxman. How did he cope?
There is something about human space flight that simultaneously feels both entirely futuristic and of the past; a future written into stories and dreams of the mid-20th century, rather than of the 21st. Britain's first official astronaut, after all, was born two years after the moon landing in 1969. "Eugene Cernan was the last person on the moon," adds Major Tim Peake, who was chosen this week for a mission to the International Space Station in November 2015. "And that" – 1972 – "was the year I was born."
Behind him, in a picture on the wall, sails the space station, the Earth a blurred blue curve below it. The European Astronaut Centre, where Peake is being trained, and where we meet, is in the far corner of a huge lot on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany, which is also home to the German Space Agency, where that future-past tension persists. The long, low prefab buildings, set among birch trees and wild flowers, feel like a throwback to the 60s. It has, however, been a valued part of the German economy – in distinct contrast to Britain, which cancelled its space programme in 1971 because it was too expensive, and, under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher, deemed a waste of money. In 2010, however, in the dying days of the Brown government, the UK finally acquired a space agency; and the UK space industry, as science minister David Willetts has been only too keen to point out, is growing at a rate of 8% a year. Last November, the coalition joined the ESA with a one-off contribution of £16m. The Treasury estimates that for every one if those pounds it will get four back in commercial activity.
Today, the astronaut centre itself is eerily under-populated – but that is only because almost everyone is in Houston or Kazakhstan, preparing to send the first of Peake's class of six into space on Tuesday. They are, in turn, the first class of astronauts to be trained by the ESA.
There was huge excitement when Peake was first chosen. This week, when his first actual mission was announced, he found himself meeting the prime minister, facing a press scrum – and, much worse, dealing with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (pictured below), who was sticking with the Thatcher memo about it all being ridiculous and a waste of money. "What's the point?" he wanted to know, in a self-parodying sneer. "You're just drifting around, aren't you? It's not what many people would recognise as a taxing job."
Peake (proving, on the way, a few of the qualities that helped him beat 8,400 people to his job) was unflapped, telling Paxman about experiments in microgravity and Commander Chris Hadfield's recent record for the most experiments done in space (when he wasn't singing Space Oddity). "I mean it's fine, isn't it," he says now. "If anything, sometimes when people ask you more intelligent questions, it's harder to answer." Ouch. "When people aren't really asking you a question, it just gives you the opportunity to talk and say what you want to say." But he accepts Paxman's contempt isn't unusual. "Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Yes it's expensive, but it's not that expensive. In the Apollo era, it was 5% of the US GDP – it's nothing like that these days." The German space programme, says Peake, the biggest in Europe, costs Germans €1 a year each. "And money spent on space is not spent in space. Money spent on space is spent here on Earth, it's industry and it's jobs." It's also research into MRSA, salmonella and osteoporosis; space exploration has given us the CAT scanner, the computer microchip, the smoke detector, domestic water filters, cordless power tools, shoe insoles …and it could even guarantee our very survival.
"There is no future for us here on Earth," says Peake. "If we survive as a human species, it's inevitable – we are going to have to leave the planet. Now that's an awful long time away, we hope, but at some point we have to make the leap, and we have to find other resources in the universe – and that starts now, I think. To me it's an insurance policy for the future. It's also all about exploration – it's in our natural psyche to want to explore, to push the boundaries and take the next steps."
The latter obviously come naturally to Peake, the second child of a midwife and a local journalist who then worked for Zurich Financial. He was born and grew up just outside Chichester, where his parents still live – "a very ordinary upbringing, a very stable upbringing"; he went to the local comprehensive. He always had huge amounts of energy, taking himself off on cross-country runs to burn it off. Eventually he joined the cadets: "It was Duke of Edinburgh award schemes, it was Outward Bound adventure training, it was flying in helicopters, it was being winched up and doing crazy stuff – for any teenage kid it was just a fantastic outlet." He joined the army because he wanted to fly, went to Sandhurst, and eventually became a helicopter test pilot, pushing the boundaries of army machines – how they behave under unusual circumstances, finding out where speed and height tip into mortal danger; what's possible and what to avoid. He served in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan – what was his experience there? "I can't talk about Afghanistan. At all." Why? "Because of what I went out to do". He suffered rotor failure flying at night in formation on the New Mexico border, carrying extra fuel tanks; he stayed calm, remembered his training, and survived.
Part of the year-long weeding-out process that began with 8,400 applicants and ended with six was exhaustive psychological testing – literally thousands of questions, he says, often the same questions repeated in many different ways. "Honestly, the process is so long, and it's so varied and so diverse that you just have to be yourself – you are who you are, and they'll find out who you are by hook or by crook." There was complex situational role-play, in which winning for yourself was deliberately set against winning for the team, forcing you to balance the two for the best result. In a cave in Sardinia, during training after they were chosen, they conducted experiments on air and water and microbiological life forms, but they were also deprived of their watches and of sleep and, for three days on a different trip, of food: the test being not only that they could continue to function under such conditions and do the jobs they had to do, but that they could do so calmly, as a team. Modern astronauts, it transpires, are a different breed to those Kennedy sent to the moon. "In the early stages they went for the Mercury 7, alpha male, fast-jet test pilots – they were on a very aggressive programme, very experimental machinery, very pilot-oriented spacecraft. [The point was] to get to the moon and back." Now that the missions are long-duration, personality is at least as important as being able to manoeuvre a spacecraft in six planes (which Peake says he found a lot easier than some of his colleagues). The astronauts have to be able to get on with their colleagues, stay focused under extreme pressure, work together as well as lead, be able to be away from their families for long stretches (Peake's wife worked in the army, in logistics, before she became a schoolteacher; they have two young boys). They have to manage loneliness and (a distinct risk on these missions) overwork and burnout. All those qualities, plus, as Gerhard Thiele, the head of the astronaut division, once said evocatively, a far rarer one: "humility".
In fact, talking to Peake, who is unfailingly polite, boyish, enthusiastic, but with the unmistakable steel of an extremely high critical intelligence, you begin to realise, with a different kind of humility perhaps, what being chosen as the best and the brightest, to coin a cliche, might actually mean.
He has to learn Russian. The day we meet he has just had a four-hour lesson; it was one of the first things their class of six did, in Bochun, "which is about an hour-and-a-half up the road. It's a bit of a concrete jungle, and it was autumn and it was raining and it was dark and we were learning Russian and we were struggling and it was all very depressing and so when you get like that you start playing practical jokes on each other. We were there for a month, and it was only after a few days that the practical jokes started escalating, and I thought, 'Well, that's the name for our class – The Shenanigans'." Apparently they've called themselves this sweetly old-fashioned name ever since.
He has to be utterly healthy, and fit. In space he will age, losing about 1% of his bone density every month (it will, says Simon Evetts, the ex-infantry commander in logistics and special forces who now runs the medical support office at ESA, take years to get it back). He may experience space-motion sickness. And, if he spends too much time looking at the view, a particularly brutal form of jet lag: the ISS circles the Earth once every 90 minutes or so, which means you get dawn and dusk every 40. He will lose aerobic fitness, muscle, motor control (these are some of the things, in fact, the team will be observing, hoping to use the results in treatments for, for instance, osteoporosis). In order to keep the worst of it at bay, he will have to spend hours exercising in specially adapted machines, where vacuums stand in for gravity. When Chris Hadfield and his colleagues touched down in the tiny 1960s-designed (but subsequently modified) Soyuz capsule a week ago, it was striking that they lay half-reclined, covered in blankets, looking frail. Evetts says this is because if they stood up, blood would pool at their feet and they would instantly faint.
If a medical emergency does occur, Peake and the others will, with guidance from the ground, have to deal with it. "I think probably the worst thing that could happen to an astronaut up there would be appendicitis," says Peake. "That would really be a bad day in the office." On the ground, they simulate as many possible disasters as they can; this week it was a toxic spill, floating in the air. It becomes clear that what test pilots and space engineers have in common is, counterintuitively perhaps, an extremely conservative attitude to risk.
He has to be able to strip a computer down to its bare elements and put it back together; he has to understand complex robotics and, of course, be able to do work like this and spacewalk at the same time. All day every day, after a 15-minute conference with the ground team, they will have to conduct experiment after experiment, using dedicated racks, each the size of an average door – a rack for fluid physics, another for physiology – experiments designed by scientists from all over the world, but also by college students and school children. They have to understand enough of the science behind them to explain it to others, all over the world. They have to manage the media – this is a distinct part of their training – and they have to be able to advocate, tirelessly: to tweet and blog and answer questions and generally bang the drum, because they are also charged with a mission to inspire, to make it possible to go deeper, higher, further. Mars? A pause. "Not right now, because I've got two small boys – but ask me that in a couple of years time, then absolutely, yes of course. It would be fantastic."Aida Edemariam
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