Kansas

Topeka Zoo names keeper attacked by tiger. Director says 3 friends ‘saved the day’

Topeka Zoo discusses tiger attack that left zookeeper with critical injuries

Topeka Zoo director Brendan Wiley discusses the attack by a male Sumatran tiger on a female zoo staff member Saturday that left her with critical injuries. Wiley answered questions on Sunday in a news conference at the Zoo.
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Topeka Zoo director Brendan Wiley discusses the attack by a male Sumatran tiger on a female zoo staff member Saturday that left her with critical injuries. Wiley answered questions on Sunday in a news conference at the Zoo.

The zookeeper who was attacked Saturday by a tiger at the Topeka Zoo, injured with lacerations and puncture wounds to her head, back and neck, was identified Tuesday as Kristyn Hayden-Ortega.

Hayden-Ortega, age 40, and said to be the mother of a 3-year-old son, was not present at a 9 a.m. press conference at the zoo. Still hospitalized, Hayden-Ortega had been in the intensive care unit of a local hospital, but now is in a general hospital room and is doing well.

The conference was held by Zoo Director Brendan Wiley. He said that he had yet to talk to Hayden-Ortega, but had been communicating with her through her husband.

“She is not ready to see me,” Wiley said. “That is perfectly fine. Completely respect that.”

He said that “her family has been through a traumatic experience” and that the family has requested some privacy.

“We’re kind of a family here and our practice is to grant those requests,” Wiley said.

Hayden-Ortega, who has been at the zoo since 2002, was described as a leader at the zoo and one of the park’s most experienced zookeepers. She is the president the Topeka chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

On April 20, at about 9:15 a.m., shortly after the zoo opened, Hayden-Ortega was attacked by the zoo’s 7-year-old male Sumatran tiger, Sanjiv, who was under her care. Later that day, Wiley confirmed that she had been severely injured and sent to the intensive care unit of a local hospital after sustaining “lacerations and punctures to the back of the head, neck, back and one of her arms.”

Wiley said Hayden-Ortega had been in the same area as the tiger, although he did not expressly blame the zookeeper for the incident.

“They’re definitely not supposed to be in the same area at the same time,” Wiley had said. The zoo is conducting its own internal investigation.

A Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center 911 call narrative from that day reads, “A Topeka Zoo employee was cleaning the tiger cage area when other zoo staff said a door where a male adult tiger should have been secured was not. Therefore the tiger was able to access the area where (Hayden-Ortega) was cleaning. The tiger attacked and eventually stopped attacking on the tiger’s own accord.”

He previously said of the tiger, “Sanjiv … did exactly what a tiger would when something comes into its territory. … While this incident is very unfortunate, he (Sanjiv) did what a wild tiger does.”

Wiley said, however, that if not for the quick actions of other staff that morning the situation could have been more dire. They were able to lure the tiger away from the keeper.

“Three of Kristyn’s friends really saved the day,” Wiley said.

The zoo has no plan to euthanize the tiger, part of an endangered species. Only 400 to 500 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, he said, with fewer than 90 in North American zoos.

Sanjiv came to the Topeka Zoo in 2017. His mating with the zoo’s female tiger resulted in four cubs born in October. The cubs went on display last month.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a 911 call narrative as a police incident report.

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.


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