The horrific death of zookeeper Rosa King this week is impossible to imagine for most people. But Janet Coghlan, 51, a caterer from Barningham, County Durham, is one of the few people to have survived a tiger attack.
Here she recalls the horror of the day the big cat pounced, her heartbreak for Rosa’s family and why she believes it is time Britain’s zoos were closed for good…
It is something I still think about every day: the afternoon I was attacked by an escaped tiger at a British zoo.
I am reminded whenever I look in the mirror. My face is still scarred from where her claws gouged at my eyes, from where my mouth and right cheek were left hanging by nothing more than shreds of skin. Across my chest and arms, there remain traces of the 250 stitches and reconstructive surgery I needed afterwards.
Sometimes I still dream about that day, about being trapped under this mass of snarling muscle. I was only 13 at the time but I remember, as clear as day, being sure I would not survive. You cannot believe how powerful a tiger is. You can’t believe how hard they hit you.
Reading about this week’s fatal attack on Rosa King , a keeper at Hamerton Zoo, in Cambridgeshire, has brought these memories swirling back.
My heart goes out to her family. I only hope that there is some comfort knowing Rosa was doing what she loved when this happened.
But this is the second deadly tiger attack in just a few years after Sarah McClay was mauled to death at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Cumbria in 2013.
Which is why I now think it is the time for a full review of zoos in this country. I believe they must be phased out of existence.
In the years since I was mauled, I have remained as passionate about animals as I always was. I have tried to turn what happened to me into a positive experience and have dedicated much of my life to raising money and awareness of wildlife charities.
But, as part of that, I have come to understand, keeping these beautiful creatures in captivity is not morally right – or safe.
It does not matter how good a zoo’s procedures are, human error happens, and when it does, tragedy inevitably follows. Wild animals are just that: wild. They are fierce and unforgiving.
While zoos exist, these incidents of horror will continue.
My own experience was almost 40 years ago now in August 1978. It was my summer holidays and I was volunteering at the now closed Seaburn Zoo, near Sunderland.
I loved it there at the time. There were everything from bears, monkeys and lions to goats and dogs. I would go every day and do odd jobs: chopping fruit, sweeping up, helping visitors, that kind of thing.
But, looking back, it was grim. The animals were kept in Victorian conditions. The tiger which attacked me – a beautiful Bengali called Meena – lived in a pit about the size of a swimming pool.
Perhaps it’s no wonder she pounced at the first opportunity.
It was a quiet, rainy afternoon and they had decided to move her for some reason. It sounds utterly extraordinary in this day and age but they asked me to hold a gate while she was walked through on a chain.
They used to say she was gentle as a lamb – I remember that exact phrase – and technically, even though I believe she already weighed about 12 stone, she was still a cub at a year old. So I suppose they thought it was safe enough.
But, of course, how could it have been?
I think the zoo owner’s wife had somehow put this leash on her but the moment I opened the gate, she broke free and just streaked towards me.
Her movement was so quick, I still find it astonishing now. She hit me like a bus full in the chest, and was on top of me, claws scraping at my face and neck and arms.
It’s funny what goes through your mind in a situation like that. Everything was a blur but I was wearing a new top and I vividly remember thinking my mum would kill me for getting blood on it.
There was no pain, really. I suppose the adrenalin rushes through you. I was screaming and trying to fight her off but these are natural born killers and, with every movement I made, I just got more trapped underneath her.
It must have only lasted a couple of minutes but I remember thinking I wasn’t going to get away. It still brings me out in tears now. I was 13 years old, and I felt certain I was being killed.
How exactly I escaped I’ve never been able to piece together. I suppose the zoo owner’s wife must have been pulling at the chain and Meena turned back on her but there was just a moment when I felt the pressure lift and I managed to roll away. I doubt I’ve ever moved so fast in my life.
I ran to a nearby building, crying, soaked in blood. There wasn’t an inch of my clothing that wasn’t red.
Again, it sounds incredible but no-one called an ambulance. They drove me to hospital in the back of a zoo van. I was woozy by then but I’ll never forget the doctor’s reaction when he saw me: “My god”.
He said it looked like I’d been in a car crash. They rushed me into surgery straight away. They said I was lucky to be alive but I already knew that. I was in there about a week in the end.
I spoke to The Mirror from my hospital bed. I pleaded for Meena not to be destroyed but she was.
That was one of the things that hurt most actually.
Other than that, at the time, I thought I was fine but I did suffer some depression and anxiety afterwards. In my 20s I threw hundreds of photos away because I hated the sight of my own face and the scarring. I wish I hadn’t.
But, now, I find it astonishing that these incidents are still happening. It breaks my heart to read about another fatality. And, for me, it just proves that zoos should now be shut down for good.
The educational and conservation benefits of keeping them open have been shown to be minimal by repeated studies. And they certainly do not outweigh the negative impact on the animals themselves which, even when well-treated and looked after by dedicated individuals, have still been found to be more stressed, frustrated and aggressive than those in the wild.
For me, tigers and all zoo-kept animals are fascinating and beautiful. But they belong in the wild, where they can roam and live longer, healthier and happier lives.
I have long supported the Born Free Foundation, which fights for protection, conservation and education, and works to take animals out of captivity. I would urge anyone with a passion for animals to do the same. It is the best way to avoid such tragedies as happened this week.’