Hamilton City Council fined over zookeeper Samantha Kudeweh death

The husband of a zoo curator who was mauled to death by a tiger at Hamilton Zoo has called the sentence handed down to the council over safety failures 'a farce'.

Hamilton City Council was prosecuted over the death of Samantha Kudeweh, 43, who died on September 20 last year.

The council was fined $38,250 and ordered to pay more than $10,000 reparation to the curator's children. It was sentenced at Hamilton District Court this afternoon for failing to take all steps to protect Kudeweh after she was killed by an adult male Sumatran tiger in an enclosure of the council-run zoo.

Judge Denise Clark said $100,000 was appropriate emotional harm reparation for Kudeweh's family but noted the council had already made voluntary repayments of $116,000.

She awarded Kudeweh's young children, Billy, 10 and Sage, 4, $5181.80 each over five years, equating to $19.93 a week.

Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh died after she was attacked by a tiger at the zoo last year. Photo / Supplied.
Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh died after she was attacked by a tiger at the zoo last year. Photo / Supplied.

Outside court, her husband Richard Kudeweh was furious at the sentence.

Kudeweh disputed that the council had made the voluntary payments.

He said there was no money in the accounts he expected it to be in, and that part of the $116,000 to do with one of the couple's employment contracts.

Kudeweh said he was too angry to speak about the situation.

"The punishment for not taking all practical steps is really nothing, you get away with it in the current system.

"I think it's a farce."

He said he was emotional following the sentencing.

"Have a look at the system's in this country and then work out what's fair and what's not. Someone's been killed, someone's pleaded guilty to that an they got off it."

Samantha Kudeweh with a tiger at Hamilton Zoo. Photo / via Hamilton Zoo website
Samantha Kudeweh with a tiger at Hamilton Zoo. Photo / via Hamilton Zoo website

Kudeweh told Newstalk ZB's Larry Williams he had been hoping for some fairness.

However, the $38,000 fine was "a joke", he said.

"We're trying to get on with our life as best we can, and you try very hard to see everyone's point of view, but that's laughable. That is laughable," he said.

"Basically the Hamilton City Council have killed somebody through neglect, through their practices. They're aware their practices were bad. They had the opportunity to fix them already in 2013 and they didn't, and the result of that was my wife dying."

He said even $250,000 - the maximum penalty - wouldn't have been enough.

The fine would have no financial impact on the council at all.

"It doesn't matter to them," he said.

'We could have done better'

Council chief executive Richard Briggs told media the council was now committed to making the zoo as safe as possible.

"It should not have been possible for Samantha to enter the tiger enclosure when the tiger was free in that space.

"We could have done better."

Briggs admitted the systems in place at the zoo last year were "not good enough".

Improvements in the wake of Kudeweh's death were to make the zoo an industry leader in safety.

"We're striving to make Hamilton Zoo as safe as possible for staff, visitors and contractors."

He said the council acknowledged and accepted today's sentence but asked if it was fair he said only that the council respected the process.

He apologised to Kudeweh's family and friends for the tragedy.

However when pressed about Richard Kudeweh's comments that he had not seen all of the council's voluntary payment of $116,000 he was adamant the council had paid it.

He said that statement was not correct.

Sumatran tiger Oz mauled zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh last year.
Sumatran tiger Oz mauled zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh last year.

Earlier in court, Judge Clark said Kudeweh was a "shining light in her family", a hero who was taken in the most horrendous way.

The judge said the council showed a willingness to help with other things, namely counselling. The judge encouraged payments by the defendant to the affected party in advance of trials. In conclusion, she said "this has been a tragedy".

When discussing the sentencing, Judge Clark had to decide three things - the amount of reparation, fix the amount of the fine and look at the money paid in its entirety.

Judge Clark acknowledged all those at the sentencing, including husband Richard Kudeweh and the members of the council, CEO Richard Briggs and Jeff Neems.

The council was prosecuted by WorkSafe NZ.

Two-keeper system

The WorkSafe investigation found the council should have implemented a two-keeper system that required keepers to walk past the cat chute and check that tigers were contained before entering the enclosure.

"Working with large carnivores like Sumatran tigers will always come with the highest possible risk - there are no second chances if you come into direct contact with a dangerous animal," WorkSafe chief inspector Keith Stewart said.

There should also have been counter-weights on the cat chute sliding gates, painted a bright colour so keepers could identify whether gates were open or shut before entering tiger enclosure.

The gates should also have all been fitted with mechanical interlock devices and signage to remind keepers to double check tigers were secured.​

'An obvious hazard'

The council was due to be sentenced on Wednesday on a charge of failing to take all practical steps to ensure the 43-year-old was not exposed to hazards arising out of working with the tiger, Oz.

However, Judge Clark adjourned proceedings after she heard submissions from the defence and prosecution saying there were matters she wanted to consider.

WorkSafe prosecutor Catalijne Pille told the judge on Wednesday there had been a number of disagreements with defence counsel over how much money should be paid to the Kudeweh family.

She said the family were struggling financially after Kudeweh's husband Richard stopped working at the zoo.

Pille submitted the starting point for the fine should be about $85,000, while the emotional harm payment should be up to $110,000 after amounts had increased since the payout in 2006 following the death of a worker at Zion Wildlife Park in Whangarei.

She said the council should already have been on high alert following an incident at the zoo in 2013 where a keeper ended up inside the enclosure with a female tiger.

"It was an obvious hazard and should have alerted them to the fact their procedures were inadequate."

There should be no decrease in the culpability of the council for Kudeweh's actions on the day, Pille said.

James Gurnick, lawyer for the council, said the Kudeweh family had already been paid $116,000 - including $20,000 held in trust for her two children - and therefore should not have to pay any further reparation.

He accepted a fine of no more than $40,000 could be paid.

He said there was conjecture in the industry whether a two-keeper system was fail-safe as a keeper was mauled by a lion at Wellington Zoo in 2006 where two keepers were working. Worksafe investigated that incident but decided not to go ahead with a prosecution.

Gurnick said the 2013 incident at Hamilton Zoo was "quite different" and was not an aggravating factor.

It was Samantha Kudeweh who investigated the 2013 incident and came to the report's conclusions which were instigated at the time.

On the day she died, Kudeweh was tasked with feeding the tigers, cheetahs, wild dogs and other carnivores at the zoo.

About 9am, she was feeding tigers Oz, and Mencari, the female, who were in separate dens.

But for some reason, she didn't shut the gates between the outside tiger enclosure and the den, meaning Oz could roam freely.

She went back to the enclosure about 10am to get food for the red pandas when Oz attacked and killed her.

The council pleaded guilty over Kudeweh's death at its last appearance in June. The charge, laid by WorkSafe NZ, carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

- NZ Herald

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