The mother of zoo-keeper Rosa King, who died after a tiger entered an enclosure at a Cambridgeshire wildlife park, said her daughter was dedicated to her job and “it’s what she had always loved”.
Miss King, 33, died at Hamerton Zoo Park, near Huntingdon, at about 11:15 BST on Monday.
Her mother Andrea King paid tribute saying “she wouldn’t have done anything else, it’s what she has always done”.
The tiger that killed her has not been put down and was unharmed, police said.
The zoo described the keeper’s death as a freak accident, and police said it was not suspicious.
Miss King’s friend Garry Chisholm, a wildlife photographer in his spare time, said she was the “focal point” and “shining light” of the wildlife park.
Mr Chisholm, 59, of Irchester, Northamptonshire, said the wildlife park revolved around the zoo-keeper.
“Rosa wasn’t just a keeper at Hamerton Zoo – she was Hamerton Zoo,” he said.
“She was the absolute central point of it, the focal point of it. She was the shining light of it.
“Her passion for the animals in her care was exceptional though her favourites were undoubtedly the cheetahs which she would refer to as her pride and joy.
“She will be greatly missed, not just by me, but by everyone who came to know her.
“The only consolation I can take from today’s tragic events is that Rosa is now reunited with her beloved Ares the cheetah, and Blizzard and Ladybelle, her beloved tigers.”
‘Heard her scream’
Peter Davis, who was at the zoo with his family, said he had heard a “commotion” near the enclosure where Ms King was attacked.
“There was a guy at the enclosure where the incident happened and he came running past me. He was taking photographs so he ran off to get some help for something, we didn’t know what.
“The next minute half a dozen zoo keepers came running down to the enclosure.”
He said he heard one of the zoo keepers screaming.
“One of the girls, we just heard her scream. And one of the girls shouted ‘run’. So a few of us ran into one of the zoo keepers’ small rooms by the closure,” he said.
His group was held in that room for about 10 minutes until they were given the all clear.
He said: “As we came out, we were sort of ushered further away, but we were still looking at what was going on, and you could obviously see the keepers all distressed, not really knowing what to do, heads in their hands.
“A couple of them were throwing meat over the enclosure to try and entice the tiger away, but it was probably going on for 10 to 15 minutes.”
Another visitor to the zoo, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: “We were close to the tiger enclosure when a member of staff shouted for everyone to leave the park quickly and immediately.”
A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “A tiger had entered an enclosure with a keeper. Sadly the female zoo keeper died at the scene.”
Visitors were led away from the zoo. At no time did the animal escape from the enclosure, said police.
Officers investigating the death said it was “not believed to be suspicious”, and that the tiger involved was “believed to be fine”.
Tigers in captivity
Wildlife expert Steve Backshall says unlike lions, tigers are solitary creatures who live and hunt alone in the wild.
“In the wild, they’ll have enormous home ranges and rarely come into contact with other tigers,” he told the BBC.
“And in captivity, quite often they’ll be kept in relatively small enclosures with other tigers, and there’s no doubt that could cause artificial stresses within those enclosed populations.
“A wild tiger could range over 1500 sq miles (3,885 sq km) – obviously you could never have a zoo that size.”
It is not yet clear how large the enclosure at Hamerton Park was, or how many tigers lived there.
Hamerton Zoo Park said in a statement: “This appears to have been a freak accident.
“At no point during the incident did any animals escape their enclosures and at no point was public safety affected in any way.
“All our thoughts and sympathies are with our colleagues, friends and families at this dreadful time.
“The park will be closed from tomorrow, 30 May, and we will give more information as soon as we can.”
The wildlife park said an investigation was under way.
Hamerton Zoo Park
The wildlife park opened in June 1990 and covers 25 acres.
It includes enclosures for Malaysian tigers, Bengal tigers, cheetahs, wolves, corsac foxes, kangaroos as well as a variety of birds, reptiles and domestic animals.
The zoo opened a new enclosure for its Malaysian tigers in July last year.
In October 2008 a cheetah which escaped from the park was found by a nine-year-old boy in the back garden of his family home.
The three-year-old cheetah, thought to have escaped through a faulty electric fence, was collected by its keepers a short time later.
Four years ago another zoo-keeper died after being mauled by a tiger. Sarah McClay was attacked by a Sumatran tiger at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria.
The zoo was fined £255,000 at Preston Crown Court in June last year after the 24-year-old employee’s death in May 2013.
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