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Tiger’s weekend escape isn’t first time wild animal has gotten loose at S. Florida zoos

The tiger escape at Miami’s Jungle Island over the weekend is a rare but not unheard-of event at South Florida zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

In 2007, Luna, a black bear at the Seminole Okalee Indian Village in Hollywood, escaped after a handler left the door to her enclosure open. The attraction at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino complex was closed at the time, and no one was hurt.

In West Palm Beach in 2008, a lion and tiger were on the loose for several hours before they were found on the grounds of their home at McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary. The cats apparently escaped through a door with a faulty hinge.

And in February, a visitor to the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington lost part of her thumb after sticking her hand in a jaguar’s cage. The woman was in an unauthorized area with a volunteer at the center.

On Monday, the tiger exhibit at Jungle Island remained closed as state wildlife officers continued to investigate how Mahesh, a Bengal tiger weighing in excess of 500 pounds, managed to jump over a fence to the amazement and alarm of visitors Saturday afternoon. Mahesh apparently was provoked by Watson, a gibbon that had also escaped.

“The monkey made its way over to the tiger’s cage and by all accounts was mocking the tiger,” said Jorge Piño, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The tiger did not take that too kindly and leapt 12 feet into the air over the cage and landed on the other side.”

Mahesh remained outside his cage while park visitors frantically ran from the exhibit. The tiger showed no interest in people during his brief taste of freedom — he was loose for 15 to 25 minutes, Piño said.

“At no time did he lunge at anyone,” Piño said. “According to what some people are telling us, he almost knew he didn’t belong on that side of the cage.”

Watson’s presence alone may have been enough to rile Mahesh, said Ashley Serrate, a spokeswoman for Jungle Island.

“The tiger became excited because a gibbon is not something he sees every day,” she said. “He tried to go after the gibbon.”

Park staff brought out a portable cage used to transport the tiger for medical care. “He was used to it and sort of walked right in,” Serrate said.

Watson’s romp ended after he sat down on a picnic table and was captured by his trainer, she said. Investigators are now trying to determine how the gibbon escaped and set off the bizarre chain of events.

“Apparently, there was a handler that was feeding the monkeys and either the handler did not relock the gate or left the gate open for some reason,” Piño said.

Even more of a mystery is the physical feat by Mahesh, admittedly heavy for his species, that allowed him to clear the fence.

“In the wild, these tigers are known to jump 20 feet,” Piño said. “We’re talking about an overweight tiger that has probably never leapt more than 2 feet off the ground.”

The park could be cited for failing to keep the animals secure. “It’s clearly a violation of the law to allow an animal to escape,” Piño said.

The escapes were the first at Jungle Island, but federal inspectors had cited the park before for potential safety hazards. In 2008, an inspector observed three young lemurs “freely jumping wildly” in a room with two visitors present, and in 2007, the same inspector saw a patron touching a kangaroo through a fence and concluded the exhibit lacked a sufficient barrier to keep the public from the animals.

At Zoo Miami, formerly Metrozoo, a Bengal tiger killed a trainer in 1994 and nearly escaped through a gate the employee left open. The zoo keeps all predatory animals locked in double enclosures — if they get past one gate they still can’t reach the public — and moats separate the animals from viewing areas, said spokesman Ron Magill.

Federal inspectors cited the zoo in 2008 for allowing visitors to be too close to clouded leopards in one part of the exhibit. A woman had complained that she was “nipped” by a leopard but provided no proof of any injury, and the zoo installed additional barriers, Magill said.

Parks and zoos are required not only to keep animals in secure enclosures but also to maintain perimeter fences to keep people out. In 1999, a man died after sneaking into SeaWorld Orlando after hours and winding up in the tank of Tilikum, the same killer whale that killed a trainer in February.

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