Kansas zoo identifies staffer attacked by Sumatran tiger

Topeka Zoo
Topeka Zoo

(TOPEKA, Kan.) — A Kansas zookeeper who was attacked and badly injured by a Sumatran tiger when she inexplicably entered the animal’s enclosure was identified on Tuesday as a 40-year-old wildlife veteran and “one of the most experienced keepers” at the Topeka Zoo, officials said.

Topeka Zoo officials said Kristyn Hayden-Ortega was inside the tiger exhibit Saturday morning when she was mauled by the 275-pound cat named Sanjiv.

“She is a truly remarkable member of our team,” Brendan Wiley, director of the Topeka Zoo, said of Hayden-Ortega at a news conference. “She’s one of those people you can talk and talk and talk about.”

Hayden-Ortega, the married mother of a 3-year-old, suffered lacerations and puncture wounds to her head, neck, back and arms in the attack and remains hospitalized in Topeka, Wiley said. She was removed from the intensive care unit on Sunday and her condition continues to improve, according to Wiley.

He said investigators have yet to interview Hayden-Ortega, who has worked at the Topeka Zoo since 2001, about why she was in the enclosure with the 7-year-old tiger.

“That is what everyone wants to know. The honest answer to that is we think we understand the sequence of events. We need her to confirm that,” Wiley said.

He declined to say if Hayden-Ortega, president of the Topeka chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, was unaware that the tiger was still in the enclosure when she entered to clean it, or whether she noticed the animal and entered anyway.

“There only should be a zookeeper in that space when that tiger is secured in an inside area,” Wiley added.

“We thought safety was our No. 1 focus. What happened Saturday morning, I think, shows that it wasn’t, and we’re going to rework processes so that things like that can’t happen again,” Wiley said.

He said there are no surveillance cameras inside the tiger’s enclosure. A webcam nearby recorded Hayden-Ortega walking inside the exhibit dragging a water hose just before she was attacked, but did not capture the horrific event.

A zoo volunteer, according to Wiley, was standing in front of the tiger enclosure when Hayden-Ortega was mauled about 9:15 a.m. on Saturday.

“There was a zoo volunteer stationed in front of the tiger exhibit that noticed something very wrong. That was Kristyn being in the outdoor tiger exhibit and the Sumatran tiger approaching,” Wiley said, offering new details of the incident.

He said the volunteer turned around and alerted a zoo staff member nearby, who ran and got the attention of an elephant keeper and then radioed for emergency response.

Wiley said the zoo was immediately closed and evacuated and a tranquilizer gun was prepared but ended up not being needed to subdue the tiger.

He called three staffers “heroes” for managing to lure the tiger away from Hayden-Ortega with food and allow emergency personnel to begin treating the injured zookeeper within 8 to 10 minutes of the attack.

“Three of Kristyn’s friends responded and really saved the day,” Wiley said. “That volunteer could only stand there and watch and is having difficulty processing that.”

Wiley said a thorough inspection of the enclosure failed to detect any problems with its gates or fencing that would suggest the tiger had escaped from a separate locked area while the zookeeper was in the animal’s exhibit.

“We were 100 percent confident in the infrastructure of that facility when we put tigers back in later that same day,” Wiley said. “We have no question about the integrity of the space or the environment.”

Hayden-Ortega has traveled the world teaching and mentoring zookeepers, Wiley said. She’s worked with elephants in Thailand and is a renowned expert on the African painted dog species.

“She is one of our most experienced keepers,” said Shanna Simpson, an animal care supervisor at the Topeka Zoo. “She’s an excellent trainer for the animals and our staff.”

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