Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Zookeeper mauled to death supported one-keeper system

Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Facebook
Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Facebook

Samantha Kudeweh supported a decision to retain a one-keeper system for dangerous animals at Hamilton Zoo.

But after the 43-year-old zoo curator was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger last September the Hamilton City Council-run zoo immediately implemented a two-keeper system.

And a review of the zoo following her death has recommended the council spend $515,000 hiring more keepers to introduce two-keeper systems for all class one animals including chimpanzees and African wild dogs.

Yesterday the council was fined $38,250 by Judge Denise Clark for failing to take all practical steps to protect Kudeweh, a mother of two.

In 2013 another keeper ended up inside an enclosure with a female tiger but was not injured, prompting a review which Kudeweh was part of.

Council acting general manager for community Helen Paki said Kudeweh supported the one-keeper system recommendation.

Chief executive Richard Briggs said there was no industry "right or wrong" system because each came with risks including that two-keeper systems meant processes had to be exact or one keeper could put the other at risk.

"There is no industry best practice in this case. It was raised and discussed (after 2013) but wasn't recommended."

He said the review by PriceWaterhouseCoopers identified potential additional risk in a two-keeper system if processes were not robust.

Briggs said the council had now spent $210,000 on safety improvements including additional fences, repositioning of a safety gate, installing mechanical fail safe latches, and improving radio communications across the zoo.

It would spend another $300,000 on more safety precautions including CCTV cameras to be installed in November and the possibility of electrification of the tiger enclosure fence.

There would also be more gun handlers and a registered shooter with speciality training.

That money and the $515,000 recommended to hire nine extra keepers to increase staff numbers and introduce better rosters would come from ratepayers.

The report itself cost $125,000.

Briggs said 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."

He 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.

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

During sentencing Judge Clark called Kudeweh a "shining light in her family".

In victim impact statements Kudeweh's mother Judy Stephens called her daughter a hero and said she was taken in the most horrendous way.

Clark said $100,000 was an appropriate amount for emotional harm reparation for the family but noted the council had already paid $116,000 in voluntary payments including $20,000 for Kudeweh's two children, Billy, now 10 and Sage, four.

The children were also awarded $5180 each over five years for "future consequential loss".

But outside court yesterday Kudeweh's husband Richard Kudeweh was furious at the sentence.

Kudeweh, who also worked at the zoo until he resigned in July, said he was angry and emotional 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.

"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 and they got off it."

Kudeweh said although it would be one year since his wife was killed on Tuesday, he would not be marking the anniversary because he and his children "lived it every single day".

- NZ Herald

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