Stacey Konwiser, the lead keeper at the Palm Beach Zoo, was mauled and killed by a male Malayan tiger on Friday, the first death from an animal attack at the zoo.
Konwiser, who was nicknamed the “Tiger Whisperer,” had a close-up of a tiger named Jeremy as her Facebook profile picture.
“The newest man in my life,” Konwiser wrote to a friend.
It is unknown which of the zoo’s four tigers attacked her, or what will happen to the endangered animal. The Palm Beach Post reported that the tiger was recovering from being tranquilized on Friday.
“I can’t put into words or make you understand, for anyone who didn’t know Stacey, how much she loved these tigers and how much this zoo family loved her. And while she’s no longer with us, her memory will live on,” Naki Carter, spokeswoman for the zoo, told the Post.
The zoo released a statement on Facebook confirming that Konwiser, 38, was attacked around 2 p.m. in the tiger night house, a private back room of the exhibit. The tiger never got out of its enclosure, and no visitors were at risk. Konwiser was preparing for the 2 p.m. “Tiger Talk” show, in which visitors get to know the animals.
The zoo is closed for the weekend, and the Post reported that the zoo is setting up a memorial fund in Konwiser’s name.
Zoo officials told the Post that Konwiser had just taken a job with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Grief counselors are available for zoo staff, friends and family, including Konwiser’s husband and fellow keeper, Jeremy Konwiser.
Social media users unearthed a 2014 post from the Palm Beach Zoo highlighting the Konwisers, who met while working at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, California. This was their 10th year together.
“We actually don’t see each other much around the zoo, since we work in different sections,” Stacey was quoted in the Post. “He gets it. There’s no need to explain technical terms, since we speak the same language.”
“Jeremy’s parents were concerned he would never find a girlfriend because of the kind of pets he had,” she joked. “He had a tarantula, snakes and a skink. But I had a pet rat!”
An investigation into Konwiser’s death is being carried out by West Palm Beach police, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials and by federal authorities with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal-rights group, called for OSHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the circumstances of the attack and to impose the “maximum penalty” on the Palm Beach Zoo in the zookeeper’s death.
“As long as employees are allowed to work in dangerously close proximity to tigers, elephants, and other dangerous animals, a significant risk of serious injury or death persists,” read a statement on the organization’s website.
According to the organization, there have been 24 deaths and 265 injuries in the U.S. from big cat attacks since 1990.
Konwiser was one of two keepers killed by tigers on Friday. A rare white tiger in a private zoo in El Salvador escaped, killed its keeper and was recaptured hours later.
The last publicized fatal tiger attack in South Florida occurred more than 20 years ago. In 1994, veteran zookeeper David Marshall was mauled and killed by a white Bengal tiger named Lucknow or “Lucky” at Metrozoo, now known as Zoo Miami. His wife and ex-wife, both keepers, were on scene, as well.