THE mother of a Scottish zookeeper who was mauled to death by a tiger claims she’s still waiting for her daughter’s boss to apologize a decade later.
Sarah McClay, 24, was attacked in the keeper’s corridor at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria on May 24, 2013.
The Glasgow animal lover died from multiple injuries including stab wounds to his neck after Sumatran tiger Padang slipped through an unlocked gate.
But her mother Fiona, 59, is still waiting for David Rivera, formerly of Gill, to personally apologize after they felt he blamed Sarah immediately after the attack.
The grandmother, who now lives in Linlithgow, West Lothian, said: “Mr Rivera never apologized directly or in writing to us for his initial outburst to the press that Sarah was solely to blame.”
“I suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia, both as a direct result of Sarah’s fatal accident and the four-year struggle that ensued to remove David from owning, maintaining or directing an animal attraction.
“I am in long-term psychotherapy, fortunately from the NHS.”
In September 2014, an inquiring jury concluded that the tiger got to Sarah by entering two open internal sliding gates in the tiger house and then an open door leading onto the corridor.
But the animal attraction now known as South Lakes Safari Zoo was sanctioned just a few years later after it was revealed that 486 animals — including giraffes, lions and tigers — had died there between December 2013 and September 2016.
The company was eventually fined £297,500 at Preston Crown Court for health and safety breaches before Rivera handed the reins to new owners in January 2017.
Fiona, who fought for justice alongside Sarah’s siblings Stephen, 37, and Lucy, 30, still has unanswered questions that keep her up at night.
Many of these came back to her last month as she quietly visited the zoo with her sister to leave a tribute to Sarah on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
She claims: “A colleague at the zoo had been cleaning the tiger house shortly before the accident.
“I’ll never know if Sarah thought her colleague locked and bolted the dark cave.
“This possibility was not adequately explored or hinted at when a statement from the zoo drew conclusions that accused Sarah’s incompetence.
“I also think that the staff were not given enough importance to break down the door of the tiger house with an axe.
“At that point they had no way of knowing if the tiger was behind that door and if it had been the consequences could have been much more serious.
“I believe the lack of a proper risk assessment for this scenario should have closed the zoo.
“And the oft-repeated statement that the zoo ‘passed every health and safety inspection’ means nothing, because an inspection is only as good as the inspector, who could have been lied to.”
However, Rivera, who was first to the scene after the attack, claims he was unable to personally apologize to Sarah’s family.
He said: “It’s such a difficult thing. The animosity in the family was so great that it was impossible for me and my family to deal with it individually.
“My family has been massively abused — I’m not saying directly from the family — but one or two people are involved.
“There were threats and things that made it very difficult to get personally involved.
“When I said that, I misjudged the day and the next day and the day after from the perspective of what I said.
“Neither am I claiming that any decision I made after the event was judged perfectly because it’s so difficult to comprehend the gravity of what happened at the time.
“You go through a major shock and I suffer – and still suffer – from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This event was an absolutely harrowing tragedy of the highest caliber.
“If I’ve said anything to the press, I didn’t do it with the intention of hurting anyone.
“I said something that made them very upset. I said something about how it could have happened.
“The saddest thing about all of this is that what I said actually turned out to be true, but it was perhaps insensitive at the time to say it without the slightest doubt.
“Looking back, I could have handled things a lot better, but in hindsight it’s wonderful science.
“Remember I was the first to get to the scene. I was the one who took care of the body, who had to shoot the tiger and who made all the calls.”
Adds Rivera, “The girl was such a wonderful person, she was one of my favorite employees.
“I can’t say enough good things, she had great potential and it was an absolute tragedy that her life was taken so young.”
Since Sarah’s death, Fiona has kept a close eye on other reports of zoo attacks around the world.
Even a decade later, she still thinks safety standards are well below acceptable levels.
Fiona warns: “I always get press questions when similar tragedies happen in other zoos, which just proves that the risk assessments are inadequate.”
“I think that feeding raw meat to big cats through their fences should be banned, but unfortunately that’s still happening.
“All animal categories, from the domestic cat upwards, are dangerous to varying degrees and as humans we seem to relish risk, but if the animal categories are to fall under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 then the visiting public must be protected by an appropriate and strong level of risk. “ Assessments.
“You have to learn the lessons from that, and given the ratio of visible staff when I walked through Safari Zoo last month, I’m not sure that’s the case.”
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