The owner of Hamerton Zoo has told an inquest that “in his opinion” Rosa King left the tiger that mauled her to death in a paddock overnight and then re-entered the area the following morning to clean.
Coroner Nicholas Moss asked Andrew Swales, the founder and current director of the company that runs the zoo, near Sawtry, to refer to a statement he made just after Rosa died on May 29, 2017.
Rosa, 33, senior carnivore keeper at the zoo, suffered traumatic injuries after being mauled by the male Malayan tiger called Cicip.
Mr Swales said slide [gate three] was open, which gave the tiger free access to the paddock area which Rosa then re-entered to clean a visitor's viewing window just after 9.30am.
Mr Swales explained the tiger should have been shut in its den overnight and Rosa would have been unlikely to have let him out first as she would have been aware of the difficulties of letting him into the paddock, then attempting to coax him back to the den to allow the cleaning to take place.
He told the jury: "It is an opinion, but I can't see Rosa letting him out and then having to get him in again."
He said if Rosa had been unable to get the tiger into its den the night before she should have alerted other staff as this was protocol.
Mr Moss said: "You can't say one way or another what happened?"
Mr Swales replied: "It is just an opinion."
Mr Swales went on to explain the system of checking the three areas in the tiger enclosure but said "the onus for safety was on the keeper" to make visual checks before entering.
Mr Swales told the inquest at Huntingdon Town Hall that originally he put together a private animal collection, but in 1990 the zoo opened to the public. He described how the facility underwent a "steady and slow" expansion and the first big cats, which were cheetahs, arrived in 1998. Records show that visitor numbers increased from 12,000 each year to 100,000 in 2016. He told the jury the two Malayan tigers arrived in 2015 and based on personal and industry experience he had designed the tiger enclosure. Mr Swales described his wider role as "overseeing" and said he was responsible for the importation of animals, but said he had a "minimal role in the daily animal keeping".
He was asked by Mr Moss about Rosa's supervision in her role as a senior keeper and he described this as "generalised and ad-hoc" but admitted that no details of communications had been recorded.
Mr Swales was then asked about inspections and the inquest was told the zoo was licensed under the Zoo Licencing Act and inspections were carried out by the local authority, Huntingdonshire District Council.
The inquest was told, the zoo was served with two improvement notices in 2013 and appointed an outside company to advise them on health and safety issues. A mid-licence inspection was due to take place in 2016, but Mr Swales confirmed this had not been carried out.