What makes a tiger attack a human?

December 26, 2007 6:24:47 PM PST
What makes a tiger attack a human, especially one that has been well trained by or born in captivity and used to human contact?

Chris Austria trained tiger cubs for Siegfried and Roy. He also helped save the woman who was attacked by a tiger at Marine World in 1998 and narrowly escaped death by tiger ten years ago.

"She turned and gave me this gaze that just went right through me," says Austria.

Chris Austria is a former San Francisco Zoo and Marine World tiger trainer. Ten years ago, he was walking a 400-pound female Bengal tiger. Suddenly, the animal turned and reared up on her hind legs.

"She just took swipes at my face. She slashed across my face in two places."

Austria had reconstructive surgery on his chin and forehead. The attack terrified the man who worked closely and affectionately with tigers for years.

"It's just a primal and deep fear, that's really not like anything else," says Austria.

He says a cup of milk he held up to the cat saved his life. He used milk as a reward for the Bengal tiger in his Marine World Shows. He trained and performed with the huge and deceptively tame looking animals.

In 1998, a San Jose visitor to the park posed with Austria and a 340 pound Bengal named Kuma ? and then the woman lost her footing on the platform.

"My worst nightmare happened. He lept off the deck and went airborne and jumped on her."

The woman was badly mauled and med-evaced to John Muir Hospital. She later recovered from her wounds. Austria, who helped save her life, says the cats can't be blamed for their behavior, nor should they be put down after an attack.

"They're tigers and that's in their genes. Captivity doesn't change that."

What he doesn't understand is how a San Francisco Zoo's tiger got out of an enclosure which has 15 foot moat and a 20 foot high wall .

"I've seen younger more agile cats jump maybe five or six feet in the air. They can't jump well and they can't climb very well," says Austria.

Austria says tigers will attack if someone falls to the ground, looks them in the eye, or turns their back on them. Austria no longer works with the animals he describes as unpredictable and dangerous. He is now a consultant on the big cats and a music producer as well.

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