Rosa King’s mother has paid tribute to her daughter, who was killed in a “freak accident” at Hamerton Zoo Park after a tiger entered the enclosure she was in on Monday.
Andrea King said her 34-year-old daughter “always loved” her job as a zookeeper, adding: She wouldn’t have done anything else, it’s what she has always done.”
Police were called to the zoo in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, at 11.15am to reports of a serious incident yesterday.
A Magpas air ambulance was on the scene 20 minutes later and visitors were evacuated from the attraction shortly before midday.
Cambridgeshire Constabulary said the tiger involved is believed to be fine as concerns were raised on social media over what would happen to the animal.
Witnesses said they heard a “blood-curdling scream” as staff tried to distract the big cat with meat in an effort to save the zookeeper.
“We heard a girl screaming and another one said ‘run to us,’ so we found a small room and stayed there until it was safe to leave,” Pete Davies, 55, told Cambridge News.
“The zoo keepers had their heads in their hands, and didn’t know what to do, throwing meat over the enclosure to entice the tiger away. They shouted stuff.”
He added: “It was a case of total panic. People were really scared, they asked us to leave straight after that and closed the park.”
The zoo said the incident appeared to be a “freak accident”.
The zoo said in a statement: “A full investigation is currently under way and we hope that more details can be announced as soon as we are able.
“At no point during the incident did any animals escape their enclosures, and at no point was public safety affected in any way.
“All our thoughts and sympathies are with our colleagues, friends and families at this dreadful time.”
Cambridgeshire Constabulary confirmed that no animal escaped from their enclosure at any time during the incident.
The force added: “The incident is not believed to be suspicious.”
The zoo, which is home to about 500 animals including monkeys, cheetahs, raccoons, sloth and tigers, confirmed it would remain closed on Tuesday while the investigation continues.
Wildlife photographer Garry Chisholm paid tribute to King on his Facebook page, which has more than 44,000 followers.
Chisholm said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of the zookeeper’s death, adding “Rosa wasn’t just a keeper at Hamerton Zoo – she was Hamerton Zoo”.
He wrote: “Her passion for the animals in her care was exceptional though her favourites were undoubtedly the cheetahs which she would refer to as her pride and joy.”
He said he was privileged to have known King, adding that she would be “greatly missed”.
Wildlife expert Steve Backshall said that tigers are solitary animals who live and hunt alone in the wild, adding that small enclosures may cause “artificial stresses” for the large cats.
“In the wild, they’ll have enormous home ranges and rarely come into contact with other tigers,” he told the BBC.
“And in captivity, quite often they’ll be kept in relatively small enclosures with other tigers, and there’s no doubt that could cause artificial stresses within those enclosed populations.
“A wild tiger could range over 1500 sq miles (3,885 sq km) - obviously you could never have a zoo that size.”
It is not yet known how large the tiger’s enclosure at Hamerton Zoo was, or how many animals lived there.
Eyewitness Jeff Knott, from Cambridgeshire, said staff had been “a real credit” to the zoo during the evacuation.
The 32-year-old told the Press Association: “We had been in the zoo since about 10.30am and heard/seen nothing until asked to leave about 11.45am.
“Staff were very calm and professional. All visitors around us were leaving in a very calm manner - no running, shouting or anything similar.”
Antonia Brickell from Magpas air ambulance denied reports that visitors had been “running in terror”, adding: “The visitors were safely evicted from the zoo.
“No animals escaped the enclosure, no children were injured.”
She also confirmed that the incident was not terrorism-related.
An East of England Ambulance Service paramedic crew and two rapid response vehicles also attended.
In 2008 a nine-year-old boy found a cheetah in his garden after the animal escaped from Hamerton Zoo.
At the time the zoo tried to play down the incident, claiming the big cat, named Akea, was as tame as a “pet dog”.
Four years ago, Sarah McClay died after being mauled by a Sumatran tiger at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria.
The zoo was fined £255,000 at Preston Crown Court in June last year following the 24-year-old employee’s death in May 2013.
It received an additional £42,500 fine after it also pleaded guilty to other health and safety law breaches when a zookeeper fell from a ladder while preparing to feed big cats in July 2014.
Last October ZSL London Zoo was put on lockdown after Kumbuka the silverback gorilla managed to exit his enclosure through two security doors that had been left unlocked by a keeper.
Armed police were called to the central London attraction and visitors were evacuated when the alarm was raised following the ape’s bid for freedom shortly after 5pm on October 13.
It follows the death of endangered gorilla Harambe, who was widely mourned after he was shot when a three-year-old boy fell into his Cincinnati Zoo enclosure in May 2016.