Tiger mauls zookeeper to death at Hamilton Zoo in New Zealand

The tiger that mauled a 43-year-old veteran zookeeper to death in New Zealand will not be euthanized, the Hamilton Zoo announced today.

Oz, a 10-year-old Sumatran tiger, attacked and killed zookeeper Samantha Kudeweh in his enclosure at the Hamilton Zoo on Sunday. Experts said the attack was “in line with his natural instincts.” Kudeweh, a mother of two young children, had two decades of experience in conservation and zoo settings.

“We’re aware there is a lot of interest and speculation around how we manage Oz now, and I want to assure the public and zoo supporters that he will not be put down,” Lance Vervoort, Hamilton City Council’s General Manager Community, said in a statement the day following the death. “Although there is an inherent risk for zoo professionals who manage big cats like Oz, there is no wider ongoing risk. There is no reason for us to put Oz down.”

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Senior staff at the zoo made the decision and informed the government, officials said.

“This is our call, and the decision on Oz rested solely with us,” Vervoort added. “Oz is a significant animal for his species. He is the father of our two cubs, and he is vital to the ongoing breeding programme to conserve this rare species.”

There are perhaps 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. The species is considered critically endangered.

Friends, family and colleagues lauded Kudeweh as a true professional.

“Samantha was a passionate conservationist, and today her family have recalled how, as an intermediate school student, she told her parents she wanted to work in the zoo sector,” family spokesperson and fellow zoo employee, Catherine Nichols, said in a statement. “She was a volunteer at Auckland Zoo for a number of years before joining the staff.”

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In a biography posted on the zoo’s website, Kudeweh wrote that she spent eight years at Auckland Zoo, two years at Melbourne and Werribee Zoos before arriving in Hamilton. She said her favourite animal is a the rhino and she especially enjoyed caring for a baby rhino named Ubuntu, who was born blind.

“For me the best thing about my role is the opportunities to interact with other species one to one, but there is a down side and that is having to say goodbye to animals. That part never gets any easier,” she wrote.

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The zoo will remain closed until Thursday. It’s not clear whether all of the zoo’s five Sumatran tigers will be on display, but visitors enhanced experiences with the tigers, and “Face 2 Face” encounters with all species are being temporarily suspended.

All five Sumatran Tigers at the Hamilton Zoo. Oz is far left./Hamilton Zoo/Facebook
All five Sumatran Tigers at the Hamilton Zoo. Oz is far left./Facebook

The zoo said it has been overwhelmed by messages of support, but won’t be commenting on tiger management procedures until the investigations are complete.

“We’re firmly focussed on supporting Samantha’s family, the zoo team, and make sure we conduct thorough and complete investigations into this tragic incident,” the facility said.

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Kudeweh’s family also issued this statement:

The family of Hamilton Zoo Curator Samantha Kudeweh have gathered at her Waikato home following her death on Sunday, 20 September, at the zoo she loved.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Samantha’s colleague Catherine Nichols – also a Hamilton Zoo staff member – says the extended Kudeweh family wanted to thank the public and the global zoo and conservation community for their messages of support over the past 24 hours after news of Sam’s death became public.

Samantha, 43, was recognised and respected globally as a talented, passionate and highly knowledgeable conservation and zoo professional whose expertise and understanding of animals was highly sought after by other zoos and captive animal breeding programmes.

Catherine says Samantha was an experienced zoo industry professional who had an exceptional reputation following more than 20 years in the conservation and zoo sector.

Her role as Curator at Hamilton Zoo made her second-in-charge to the Zoo Director, and she was responsible for the management of the animals and acquisitions of new animal exhibits.

“Samantha was a passionate conservationist, and today her family have recalled how, as an intermediate school student, she told her parents she wanted to work in the zoo sector,” says Catherine. “She was a volunteer at Auckland Zoo for a number of years before joining the staff.”

She grew up in Papakura, and studied at Lincoln University and Auckland University toward a Bachelor of Science.

She worked at Auckland Zoo for several years, before a shift to Zoos Victoria in 2002. During her stay in Melbourne she met Richard Kudeweh, another zoo professional who she would go on to marry.

In 2005, Samantha and Richard moved to Hamilton Zoo, where she started as the mammals team leader. In 2011 she was promoted to zoo curator, achieving one of her professional dreams. It gave her the opportunity to become involved in a number of species management programmes, an area of conservation which she had a passion for.

She was responsible for managing breeding programmes for a number of species, including the southern white rhino, and was able to influence the zoo sector across Australasia.

She was NZFaunaTAG co-convenor (birds), a nationwide programme to help rebuild populations of native species.

Samantha has two beautiful children with Richard – Billy, 9, and Sage, 3. The zoo was a crucial part of Samantha’s life, second only to her family. She appreciated what Richard called “intelligent humour”, and loved the people around her and those she worked alongside.

Family and friends of Samantha have asked for privacy at this time while they grieve and make arrangements for an appropriate farewell for Samantha.

Oz on his 10th birthday, Nov. 21, 2014/Hamilton Zoo/Facebook
Oz on his 10th birthday, Nov. 21, 2014/Hamilton Zoo/Facebook

Photos Hamilton Zoo/Facebook

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Recovering newspaper reporter.

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