Keeper killed by tiger at Hamilton Zoo


By Lane Nichols, Belinda Feek, Lauren Priestley, Bernard Orsman

The woman killed by a tiger at Hamilton Zoo today was senior staff member, Samantha Kudeweh.

Known as Sam, Ms Kudeweh, 43, held the job title of Zoo Curator.

She had over 20 years experience in the field, police said in a statement.

Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Hamilton Zoo
Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Hamilton Zoo

"Samantha's family have been advised and are aware of the media release," said Senior Sergeant Andy Townsend of the Waikato District Command Centre.

Ms Kudeweh lived in Pirongia.

On the 'ZooBorns' Facebook page, Ms Kudeweh described caring for three tiger cubs after they were born at the zoo late last year to female Sumatran tiger 'Sali'.

"She gave birth on November 16th, but we needed to keep this news under wraps to ensure a stress-free start to motherhood for Sali. For any first-time mother, those first few days are very important, so we kept our distance and just observed what we could."

Mrs. Kudeweh wrote that staff had just been able to assess the cubs for the first time.

"They are fat, loveable, and very strong. Like most newborns, they're noisy and easily tired, but do seem to be doing okay. They have just started opening their eyes and their ears have begun to unfurl."

She also said the birth of the two cubs had been a significant achievement for Hamilton Zoo, and the critically endangered Sumatran Tiger species.

"This is career highlight for me and the rest of the team involved," Mrs. Kudeweh says. "It's very exciting for the zoo and the species."

In a personal bio on the zoo's website, Ms Kudeweh wrote that she was a curator at the zoo, which involved a lot of organising.

"Imports and exports - what animals we get at the zoo, how we look after them and how we interpret them to the public."

Before joining the team in Hamilton, she had spent eight years at Auckland Zoo and two years at Melbourne and Werribee Zoo's. Before working in zoo, she completed a BSc at Auckland University.

"For me the best thing about my role is the opportunities to interact with other species one to one, but there is a down side and that is having to say goodbye to animals. That part never gets any easier.

"My favourite animal is the rhino, but I also have a soft spot for whoever is behaving! A memorable experience during my time here at Hamilton Zoo was working with baby rhino Ubuntu during his first few weeks. He was born blind and needed lots of help until his eyes cleared and he could start to find his mum on his own and feed himself."

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs declined to comment on how the fatal attack happened but confirmed that it was one of the male tigers, Oz, involved in the incident.

Mr Briggs said council wouldn't be commenting on how the incident happened, if the staff member was authorised to be in the enclosure or what she was doing until various other investigations, including by Worksafe NZ, were concluded.

He wouldn't confirm any details about the staff member either or how long she had worked there for nor would he comment about reports that the attack happened while the staff member was cleaning the enclosure.

It is the first fatal attack of a staff member at Hamilton Zoo by one of its animals.

Mr Briggs said all council and zoo staff were devastated by what had occurred.

"Hamilton Zoo will remain closed until Thursday while investigations are completed and we will arrange for a blessing of the site."


As for the fate of Oz, he wouldn't comment whether he would be put down or allowed to remain at the zoo until the investigations had been carried out.

"He is safely contained in his enclosure. All other animals at the zoo are appropriately contained and at no time have any zoo animals not be been contained."

However, he said Oz was in an enclosure with one of the older female Tigers.


Siri and her two cubs were in a separate enclosure, zoo visitor manager Dave Smart said.

Waikato police Senior Sergeant Mike Underwood said the staff member was dead when police arrived.

Police are investigating on behalf of the coroner and working along side Worksafe NZ.

Ministry of Primary Industries - the government agency with jurisdiction over zoo animals - was also investigating the fatal attack, said Verification Services director Chris Kebbell.

"Our sympathy is with the victim's family and colleagues following this tragic event.

"MPI is investigating the incident and awaiting further details from the zoo and cannot comment further at this stage."

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker said it was "a very sad day".

"We extend our sincere condolences to everyone involved. It's a very close staff community here at the zoo and a lot of the staff are hurting including ourselves."

Photo / Nick Reed, New Zealand Herald
Photo / Nick Reed, New Zealand Herald

Continued below.

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Emergency services were called to the Hamilton Zoo just after 11am this morning, after reports a zookeeper had been attacked.

"Sadly the staff member who was attacked by the tiger has died at the scene.

"This is a tragic incident. It is too early to determine exactly what's happened."

Hamilton police were working with zoo staff and WorkSafe NZ to investigate.

There are two zoo keepers, one male one female, who are in charge of the Tigers but other zoo staff also help.

Firefighters had been called to the scene at 11.07am, he said.

St John spokeswoman Teneale Lawrence said ambulances were notified of the incident at 11.02am, arriving shortly after.

A veterinarian has also arrived at the scene.

A female zookeeper has been killed by one of the tigers at the Hamilton Zoo on Sunday morning. Photo / Nick Reed, New Zealand Herald
A female zookeeper has been killed by one of the tigers at the Hamilton Zoo on Sunday morning. Photo / Nick Reed, New Zealand Herald

Adam Rich, who is visiting the city from Melbourne, said he saw a female keeper open the gates so the zoo's tigers could access an outside area of the enclosure not long before the attack happened.

"I saw the tigers about 45 minutes to an hour before the evacuation of the premises and yeah they looked fine, there was a keeper in there who opened up the gate so the tigers could leave the inside area to go to the outside area but that's all I saw."

Zoo staff then approached him and asked him to leave.

"They seemed a bit panicky. I thought an animal had escaped but they guaranteed that an animal did not escape."

He then heard an announcement from zoo staff asking all visitors to leave.

All visitors were then offered refunds.

A woman who visited the zoo over the weekend, Healie Hall, said staff told her the cats and keepers are never in the same area together.

"She said the keepers never go in an enclosed space with them so I wander [sic] how they even got in that situation," she said on her Facebook page.

One of the Sumatran Tigers at Hamilton Zoo. Photo / Dean Purcell
One of the Sumatran Tigers at Hamilton Zoo. Photo / Dean Purcell

Today's tragedy follows the death of lion keeper Dalu Mncube in May 2009 at Whangarei's Zion Wildlife Garden, who was fatally mauled by a white tiger.

The 260kg tiger was shot dead shortly after the attack.

In April 2012, visitors and staff watched in horror as zoo keeper Dr Helen Schofield was killed by an elephant at Franklin Zoo.

She was killed when 39-year-old African elephant Mila picked her up after Dr Schofield went into its enclosure.

Franklin Zoo staff members used food and hay to lure Mila away.

But when an advanced paramedic arrived soon after, Dr Schofield was dead.

Hamilton Zoo hit headlines in 2013 for a previous close call in the tiger enclosure.

Ministry for Primary Industries launched an investigation into the incident in March, 2013 - after a Hamilton zookeeper walked 10 metres into an enclosure she thought was empty before finding herself alone with a female tiger.

The keeper managed to exit the enclosure and did not receive any injuries.

The city council said a gate had been mistakenly left open at the time.

Hamilton Zoo director Stephen Standley said at the time the incident had resulted in new security measures - including a key-retention padlock - that would be implemented in the zoo.

Hamilton Zoo is home to a number of Sumatran tigers - a rare sub-species of tiger.

The zoo's female Sumatran tiger, named Sali, had two cubs in November 2014.

When the cubs - Kirana and Kembali - were named, the zoo's curator Samantha Kudeweh said they were "fighting fit and full of energy".

They were still nursing from their mother in May this year but also ate about 2kg of meat each day.

"They are confident little cats who are eager to explore their world," she said.

The cubs' father Oz, the tiger who has killed a keeper, is housed in a neighbouring enclosure and the cubs and the tiger family can often be seen relaxing near each other.

Oz was brought to Hamilton Zoo in 2014 as part of the Global Species Management plan for Sumatran tigers, and the birth of the two cubs was heralded as a significant achievement for the zoo and the critically endangered Sumatran tiger species.

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