Tiger that killed zoo worker 'dragged her into its enclosure'
Police contradict idea that keeper went into tiger's pen, and do not believe there was a risk of animals escaping to public areas
A Sumatran tiger, similar to the one that attacked Sarah McClay. Photograph: Beawiharta/Reuters
A zookeeper mauled to death by a tiger was attacked while carrying out routine duties, police have said.
It has emerged that Sarah McClay, 24, was in the staff section of the big cat enclosure building at South Lakes Wild Animal Park, Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, when the rare Sumatran tiger confronted her.
Animals are supposedly prevented from entering the staff area and officers are investigating how it got in.
Detective Chief Inspector Bob Qazi said: "We are still trying to establish exactly how and why the tiger has been able to get from the pen into the staff area and at the moment believe this to be because of a human or system error, or mechanical failing, or a combination."
The owner and founder of South Lakes Wild Animal Park, David Gill, had previously claimed that McClay "inexplicably" broke health and safety rules and was actually inside the animal's enclosure when she was attacked on Friday.
He had said: "After investigation by the authorities here and the police, it does seem that she just basically failed to follow the correct procedures.
"For some unknown reason, an inexplicable reason, because there is no reason for why she did it, she opened the door and went into the tiger enclosure and straight into the tigers, and now we'll never know why."
However, after interviews with witnesses, police now believe that the 10-year-old tiger entered the staff area, grabbed McClay by the head and throat and dragged her into a separate area.
It fled when shots were fired.
McClay was taken by air ambulance to Royal Preston hospital but died later from her injuries.
Qazi said: "I want to emphasise there is no suggestion of any foul play or any issue of suicide or self-harm from the enquiries we have made and evidence we have.
"What has become apparent from our enquiries with witnesses is that Sarah was going about her routine duties and was in the staff section of the enclosure building, which animals are not allowed access to, when a tiger has entered it from an adjacent pen and confronted her.
"The tiger has then attacked Sarah, taking her from the building into the open-air external enclosure area where Sarah was left and later attended by staff and paramedics.
"It is vitally important that we discover what exactly happened in the big cat enclosure building that led to Sarah coming into contact with the tiger.
"The building was secured at the time and we do not believe there was any risk to the general public from animals escaping into public areas of the park
"We are continuing to liaise closely with Sarah's family and our thoughts are with them, and her friends, at this very difficult time."
He said the tragedy had had a deep impact on workers at the park.
McClay, who was from the Barrow area and had worked with big cats for many years, was "very experienced" with tigers according to Gill.
Before the most recent police announcement, Gill said it was against strict safety protocols to walk into the tiger's cage, and that the zoo had been praised for its safety standards following a major inspection last Monday.
He added: "None of us have been able to come up with a really reasonable conclusion.
"All we know is that no one else was involved, there was nobody with her, and for some unknown reason she opened a door and walked straight into the tigers."
Gill said he had no wish to have the tiger, which is one of the rarest in the world, put down.
""He didn't make the mistake. He was just there. It's so difficult because we don't blame him for what has happened," he said.
McClay's family paid tribute to the emergency services and hospital staff and have set up a memorial fund in her memory.
They said: "We'd like to thank you all for your kind words. We are still coming to terms with what has happened.
"Investigations are ongoing and it may be sometime before a full picture emerges of what happened and how this tragic accident came to pass."
They have set up a fund in memory of McClay to support red squirrel conservation, a cause the zoo worker was passionate about.
Donations and messages of condolence have been left at www.justgiving.com/SarahMcClay.
Barrow council is also continuing its investigation into the incident.