Visitors Support Re-Opened Zoo After Deadly Attack

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A makeshift memorial to a slain tiger and her teenage victim quickly took shape as the San Francisco Zoo reopened for the first time since the fatal mauling.

Flowers, stuffed animals and photos adorned a bronze tiger sculpture near the zoo's entrance, paying tribute to 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and the feline named Tatiana, who was shot dead by police during the Christmas Day attack. One note read: "For two beautiful lives lost to all of us."

Many of those who braved a blustery chill to visit Thursday said they came to show support for the beleaguered facility.

"We've always felt safe here at the zoo," said Dianne Todd, of Sunnyvale, who was there with her husband and two adolescent sons. Todd carried a photo of the tiger, called Tatiana. The zoo staff, she said, "do their best to keep everybody safe."

Sousa was killed and his two friends suffered bites and claw wounds after the 350-pound Siberian tiger likely climbed or leaped out of its outdoor pen. Police were investigating whether the victims had taunted the tiger before the mauling.

New signs greeted visitors warning them not to pester the animals, and a new emergency speaker system was being installed, zoo spokesman Paul Garcia said.

Prior to the attack, an earlier speaker system was dismantled because neighbors complained about the noise, Garcia said.

At the tiger enclosure, high fences covered with green tarps kept the scene of the attack hidden from view. Workers in hard hats could be seen through windows along one side of the exhibit preparing to erect a glass screen above the concrete wall that apparently could not keep one tiger from escaping.

"I still can't believe a tiger made it up the side. It's shocking," Brian Glover, 46, said outside the tiger grotto, as his 1-year-old son looked on from a stroller.

Near lunchtime, the smell of french fries wafted from the Terrace Cafe, where brothers Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, and Paul Dhaliwal, 19, fled after the tiger first attacked. Police found the animal attacking one of the bloodied men there before they fatally shot it.

A lawyer for the brothers has berated the zoo for what he called its slow response to their pleas for help. The zoo's director disputes that claim, calling the response of zoo employees"heroic" without elaborating on the details of the response.

A woman has claimed she saw three men teasing the animals shortly before the tiger attack, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Jennifer Miller, who was at the zoo on Christmas with her husband and two children, said the family left the area because her kids were disturbed by the young men's behavior.

Miller said Sousa, whom she later recognized in newspaper photos, was not harassing the animals.

Jose Pedro Ramierez, 66, a volunteer guide at the zoo for 10 years, said taunting the animals has always been a "prevalent" problem, from visitors yelling at wildlife to throwing small stones. It's a "natural instinct" to try to get a rise out of the animals, he said. "I'm at a loss about what to do about it."

Sam Singer, a zoo spokesman, said despite safety concerns about the facility, finding out whether the victims provoked the tiger could "explain why Christmas 2007 was different than any other day in the 70-year history of the big cat grottos."

"When people go to a zoo, they should always expect to be safe, and they should expect the animals to be safe," he added. "Clearly, something happened unusual to cause Tatiana to bolt her enclosure. Clearly, the enclosure could have been or should have been even more secure."

Under San Francisco law, it is a misdemeanor for anyone to "molest, disturb, capture, injure, or destroy any animal in any park," including the zoo, according to Sgt. Steve Mannina, a police spokesman.

The tiger exhibit itself has also faced intense scrutiny, especially since zoo officials announced that the enclosure wall was about 4 feet lower than recommended national standards.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can impose penalties, including fines, on zoos for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. USDA inspectors visited the San Francisco Zoo last week, but the department said Thursday that it could not confirm for confidentiality reasons whether the zoo was being investigated under the welfare law.

USDA inspection reports covering 2005-07, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press, show that the zoo has been cited for problems including open feed bags, poor drainage, rust and peeling paint, and cramped quarters that may have led to the deaths of two rare African antelopes.

Scrutiny of the zoo's role in the tiger attack didn't stop Ana Diaz, 18, from checking out the exhibits Thursday.

"A lot of people are saying negative things about the zoo. But I think it was accidental," said Diaz, a college student from San Jose. "I don't know of any other kind of danger here."