It was described as the "menagerie a trois", a colourful love triangle among the staff at London Zoo. And when the story first emerged of how the meerkat handler had tangled with the squirrel monkey keeper over a handsome colleague known as the llama lothario, there was no shortage of laughter. For the girl at the heart of the scandal, however, the episode - and the tortuous months that followed - have been anything but funny.
In truth, the clash between the love rivals was an ugly one, a confrontation more suited to the wild animals than their keepers. And for Caroline Westlake, the pretty meerkat expert, the consequences have been disastrous. Today she is very different from the carefree woman who turned up at London Zoo's staff Christmas party in December 2014.
The 30-year-old has been humiliated, traduced by her employers and convicted, falsely, of recklessly "glassing" her love rival, causing a small cut. She has lost her job, suffered post-traumatic stress and her relationship with the llama keeper, Adam Davies, 31, has fallen apart.
No wonder she sobs frequently as, in her first interview, she sets out what happened that night. Last week's decision by the High Court to clear her name leaves her free to speak for the first time - and she is determined that her side of the story be known.
She says she was punched and spat upon by her love rival and that it was she who was the victim of an unprovoked assault before reacting, forgetting she had a glass in her hand. In other words, it was an accident.
She is dumbfounded at the behaviour of former colleague Kate Sanders, 32, the monkey keeper, whom she claims "terrorised" her at work because of her jealousy over Adam, before assaulting Caroline at the party.
More disturbingly, she is angered by the actions of her former employer, London Zoo, whom she accuses of dismissing her case out of hand, of altering the minutes at a disciplinary hearing and - as an employment tribunal later found - of siding with the monkey keeper to the extent that she was allowed to keep her job, while Caroline was sacked.
And she is baffled by the apparent incompetence of the magistrates who first convicted her, who seemed to say that merely engaging in an argument with a glass in hand amounts to "recklessness".
"My life has been completely tipped upside down because of an accident," Caroline says when I meet her at her parents' four-bedroom home in Surrey. "Yet the person who attacked me is still working at London Zoo while I was sacked and charged with assault. I've suffered psychologically and have lost my livelihood, the animals I loved, my home, my friends and my relationship with Adam.
"I have never been persecuted like this in my life. I didn't want to be labelled a 'glasser' and be associated with something so violent when it was an accident. I'll never get my life back. I didn't serve a prison sentence, but I feel as though I've been imprisoned for the last 14 months."
This complicated story has been played out in numerous hearings: at a magistrate's court, in an internal London Zoo hearing, at an employment tribunal and then, last week, at the High Court. Throughout, Caroline has insisted she was assaulted by Kate. One witness told the employment tribunal they heard a thump as she was struck. Kate has denied hitting her.
So far as Caroline is concerned, the trouble between the two women began when she and Adam started dating in early 2014. The llama keeper had previously been in a five-year relationship with Kate, and had then gone out with another woman, who worked in London Zoo's gift shop. It was a full year before he began dating Caroline.
When Adam told Kate about their relationship, Kate's attitude took a frosty turn, Caroline says. "She would turn her back whenever she saw me at work. If I walked past her section she would slam buckets down. Kate looked after the squirrel monkeys. They needed constant attention.
"They were little divas. When you work with animals, you get an eye for animal behaviour. But when you see it in humans it's surprising.
"Kate certainly had alpha female tendencies. Everyone described her attitude towards Adam as 'scent marking'. She was isolating me and being friendly to him. I felt she didn't want him but didn't want anyone else to have him either." But what might have seemed petty became something more serious at the Christmas party in 2014, held in the zoo's Prince Albert suite. It was just ten minutes into the event that things started to go wrong.
"I went to the toilet and I overheard a girl admiring another's outfit," she says. "I recognised Kate's Australian accent. She said: 'Better than Caroline. Have you seen the state of her?'" Kate, she says, later told other partygoers: "If she wants to start a fight I'll have her." A witness confirmed this to the employment tribunal, but Kate denies this version of events.
"She was around me a lot and I felt suffocated," Caroline recalls. "At one stage I was on the dance floor with friends and Kate came spinning through the group like a helicopter. We moved but she came through again. It wasn't subtle."
At about 10.15pm, Caroline made her way downstairs to the cloakroom on the second floor, wine glass in her hand. She didn't spot Kate until it was too late.
"I asked her why she was treating me like this, Caroline says. 'She said, 'Because you're dating my ex-boyfriend'." Kate denies this also. "She then accused me of trying to steal him from her when they were still together.
"Kate got to the point where she lost control. She was screaming: 'Everyone hates you, everyone slags you off behind your back.' I replied they said the same about her and she thumped me in the face."
There were no witnesses to who struck the first blow and what happened next is a blur to Caroline. As she told the court, she blindly reacted to being hit, forgetting about the glass in her hand.
"I remember feeling shocked and panicked and then hearing a glass smash. My face was throbbing, I looked up and saw a gash on Kate's face. There was a lot of blood.
"Kate told the cloakroom attendant I had just glassed her in the face and for him to call the police." The extraordinary scene that followed was witnessed by several people.
Caroline says: "Kate launched herself at me and bent me back over an internal balcony, which was about 30ft up. She had her hands around my throat. She was spitting on me in between calling me a 'f****** bitch'." Kate denies spitting.
Both women went to hospital and the next day were suspended by the zoo pending an investigation. However, while Caroline was later sacked, Kate was given a final written warning and banned from zoo social events for two years.
Caroline recalls: "When I was told I started screaming like somebody had died. I had died in a way. It was my whole life; I had worked so hard for it. I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to the animals.
"I kept thinking about Tammy the Tamandua, the meerkats, the lemurs and the armadillos: they were all so dear to me." She appealed, but to no avail. "It was so nasty," she says. "The zoo kept going on about the cut. They said I had caused a very serious injury, that the glass had gone right through Kate's cheek and that she had needed external and internal stitches. However, at my court hearing there was no evidence to prove the internal stitches."
In fact, the cut was just 1cm long. "One witness said she heard a thud - me being thumped. But this was also dismissed by the zoo."
At this time, Caroline was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and depression.
When she put this to the zoo, it was dismissed. "They said: 'We are not your parents, we are not responsible.'
In the meeting minutes this was changed to: "The society can't be held responsible for that." The zoo later accepted that the minutes were not verbatim.
The appeal was dismissed and Caroline took the zoo to an employment tribunal which issued a damning judgement.
They found "no reasonable employer" would have differentiated between the parts both played in the altercation and that their outcomes should have been the same. They also found "ample evidence" that Kate had been "economical with the truth in her version of events".
But any relief was short-lived. A couple of months before she was due to appear before Westminster magistrates' court on the assault charge, Adam broke up with her.
"He said I'd changed," Caroline says. "I went from a happy, sunny enthusiastic person to someone in a state of shock and disbelief. I was depressed and on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication." The magistrates dismissed the claim of intent, but found Caroline guilty of recklessness and sentenced her to 80 hours' community service.
When later forced to state their reasons for the verdict, the magistrates said: "There was a heated argument by both parties in close proximity. The defendant had a wine glass in her hand... there was obvious risk of injury."
It is a puzzling ruling - and one rejected when Caroline appealed to the High Court, which last week cleared her.
"I got a text from my solicitor to say 'Conviction quashed. It's over'," Caroline says. "My mum cried with happiness but I felt numb. I still do. I just couldn't believe - and I still can't - this has happened to me.
"I feel angry with the zoo, but mainly with Kate. I wish I'd never gone to that party and I never want to see her again in my life. I now want to concentrate on getting back to being the person I was and the animals I love. Kate can't destroy my life and career for ever."
A spokesman for ZSL London Zoo said: "The employment tribunal agreed with our decision to terminate Caroline Westlake's contract. We acknowledge the tribunal findings that it would have been fairer to give both parties the same treatment, but at the time we felt the severity of the injury to Ms Sanders justified our position."
Kate Sanders could not be reached for comment.
-The Mail on Sunday