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Video: Caretaker dies after liger attack

TODAY contributor
updated 3/20/2013 4:34:58 PM ET 2013-03-20T20:34:58

An animal handler with thousands of hours of experience has died after being mauled by a 1,000-pound lion-tiger hybrid he was feeding at an Oklahoma animal sanctuary.

Peter Getz, 32, had entered the big cat’s enclosure on Wednesday while it was feeding, a violation of standard procedures. The hybrid cat, called a liger, bit Getz on the neck and back before other handlers rescued him and called 911. He was taken to a Tulsa hospital, where he died Thursday night.

A powerful creature
On Friday, Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that Getz broke the cardinal rule of dealing with large carnivores.

“You’re talking about an animal that is 20 times more powerful than the human being that was feeding it,” Corwin explained. “One of the most important protocols with these powerful cats in captivity is to never enter their enclosure with the animal present, especially when it involves food.”

Getz had been a volunteer for more than a year at Safari’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Okla., and reportedly had thousands of hours of experience dealing with animals at the Tulsa Zoo.

“We try to have all the procedures in place, but for some reason, they weren't followed this time,” Lori Ensign, the sanctuary’s owner, told NBC affiliate KJRH in Oklahoma. “In all my years, we've stressed that whatever you do, you don't open that gate.”

Food is put on a pole that is inserted through the fence to feed the animals. It’s deer season in Oklahoma, and Ensign said that the liger may have been more excited than normal because he was being fed raw venison.

Lion-tiger crossbreed
The liger, a cross between a male lion and female tiger, is named Rocky. Ensign said the animal was donated to the sanctuary, which houses 200 animals, most of them either rescued or donated. She told KJRH that when Rocky was growing up, she used to ride him like a horse and that he has a gentle nature.

But Corwin told Lauer that it doesn’t matter how gentle a predator may be.

A liger is the product of crossbreeding between a male lion and a female tiger.
“This creature could have, by its nature, a very individualistic, nice personality,” the animal expert said. “But the truth is, a tiger that weighs hundreds of pounds only needs to have one bad moment, and one bad moment can be critical, if not lethal, to a human being.”

It remains unknown why Getz entered the enclosure. An investigation by local authorities will attempt to determine that, and will decide whether Rocky should be allowed to live or be put down.

“In many situations, the animal is destroyed because it has connected in a negative way and a dangerous way to human beings, and the truth is there’s an increased opportunity for this animal to become even more dangerous,” Corwin told Lauer.

Texas tigers
There are other questions behind the story, Corwin went on. “What it really echoes to is a bigger situation, which is keeping these exotics in captivity for nonlegitimate purposes in the first place,” he said. “This is a rescue center, but what is the individual history of that liger? How did it get there?”

Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin said that Rocky the liger may have to be put down.
The animal may have originated in neighboring Texas, which has no laws regarding the keeping and breeding of big cats. The exact number of big cats in Texas is unknown, but estimates have put the population of tigers in that state at between 2,000 and 4,000, which may represent the largest tiger population in the world.

“If you went to India today, you would find that there are less tigers living there than there are in the state of Texas, where the laws and regulations are incredibly loose,” Corwin said. He added that every year, “There are probably 10 people or more that are critically injured, in some cases killed, by tigers, and it’s happening in our own country.”

Ensign, the park owner, said that her sanctuary has closed since the accident. She did not say when it might reopen.

The sanctuary is a nonprofit wildlife refuge. All staff members are volunteers. It is licensed and regulated through the Oklahoma Wildlife Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is subject to the same rules as public zoos.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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