London: The female zookeeper mauled to death by tigers entered their enclosure on one of their ‘starvation days’, it was revealed.
As the mystery surrounding Sarah McClay’s death deepened, it also emerged that just days before she was killed she changed her Facebook profile picture to one of a painting of a face slashed by claws.
Police have not ruled out the possibility that the 24-year-old committed suicide by walking into the tiger enclosure at the animal park.
McClay suffered ‘very traumatic’ head and neck injuries in the attack and went into cardiac arrest. Although resuscitated by paramedics, she died in hospital.
The zoo owner said the keeper failed to follow the ‘strict protocol’ of radioing for permission to enter the enclosure before opening the padlock and two slide bolts.
He said it was ‘inexplicable’ that she then went inside without ensuring the Sumatran tigers, Padang and Alisha, were locked away.
Keepers are required to enter the enclosures in the course of their duties. But each one contains a number of compartments and an elaborate system of gates which should mean the animals and their keepers remain apart at all times.
Days before her death, McClay changed her Facebook picture to a still from the 1991 Disney animation Beauty and the Beast, which shows a portrait in ribbons after being slashed by claws.
A police source said: “It is something the investigation is looking at as a whole as the victim apparently ignored all her safety training before stepping into an enclosure containing two lethal predators. She didn’t radio for permission and she didn’t let anyone know she was going in. She did this despite having been the keeper of the tigers for well over a year and had been very experienced.”
After McClay entered the enclosure on Friday, staff at South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, heard a scream over the radio and ran to the scene, where they found the two tigers on top of her.
Park owner David Gill, 42, said Padang, the male Sumatran, had instigated the attack. He added that at the time Padang and Alisha were on what is known as a ‘starve day’, when they are not fed — to mimic conditions in the wild where tigers may go for some time without catching any prey.
“The males are twice the size of the females and Padang had taken control,” Gill said.
He fired two shots with a rifle to scare away the animals, but McClay, who lived with her boyfriend in Barrow-in-Furness, had already suffered serious injuries.
Last night police said they had not ruled out suicide, but had so far failed to find any evidence to suggest that was the motive for entering the enclosure.
Detective Chief Inspector Bob Qazi said: “There is no suggestion of any foul play or any issue of suicide or self-harm from the enquiries we have made and evidence we have.
“What has become apparent from our inquiries with witnesses is that Sarah was going about her routine duties and was in the staff section of the enclosure building, which animals are not allowed access to, when a tiger has entered it from an adjacent pen and confronted her. “