Man mauled by Siberian tiger at Bronx Zoo

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A man jumped into the Bronx Zoo's tiger exhibit from an elevated monorail Friday afternoon and was mauled by a big cat before he could be rescued, authorities and zoo officials said.

David Villalobos, 25, of Mahopac, was riding in the monorail's last windowless car about 3 p.m., authorities said, when he suddenly climbed over the safety bars and leaped from a height of about 20 feet.

He cleared a 16-foot-high perimeter fence and landed in the Wild Asia exhibit, where he was pounced on by Bachuta, an 11-year-old, 400-pound male Siberian tiger, Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny said last night.

Villalobos, who was critically injured, was in the enclosure for about 10 minutes before zoo workers, using a fire extinguisher, were able to make the tiger retreat, Breheny said.

"We did not have to use deadly force, but we were prepared to do so," he said. "Once the tiger backed off, the man was instructed to roll under a 'hot wire' to safety. The keepers were able to call the tiger into its off-exhibit holding area and safely secured the animal."

The hot wire is an electrified fence that allows people to escape the enclosure through a gap between the fence and ground.

Breheny said Villalobos was conscious and talking after the attack. He had puncture and bite wounds on his arms, legs and the back of his shoulders, but he would have been killed if that were the wild cat's aim, the zoo director said.

"The tiger did nothing wrong in this episode," Breheny said.

Bachuta, who has been at the zoo for three years, will not be euthanized, Breheny said.

Villalobos, whom police described as emotionally disturbed, was in stable condition at Jacobi Medical Center.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Villalobos broke an ankle and an arm in the fall from the monorail.

A woman who answered the phone at Villalobos' home declined to comment Friday night.

Breheny said the attack was the first incident linked to the monorail in its 35-year history.

Zoo safety procedures will be reviewed, Breheny said, "but we honestly think we're providing a safe experience and this is just an extraordinary occurrence."

Breheny also praised his staff. A monorail worker immediately sounded an alarm and emergency responders rushed in minutes later, he said.

"This was a bad situation, but it was a really good day at the Bronx Zoo because we have a cat that is still alive, and we have this guy that was pulled out of this exhibit and he's still alive," Breheny said.

The 265-acre Bronx Zoo is considered the centerpiece of the four zoos and one aquarium operated by the Bronx-headquartered Wildlife Conservation Society, founded in 1895 to save wildlife and wild places around the world.

The Wild Asia Monorail also takes visitors past 43 acres with elephants, rhinos and deer, and along the Bronx River, where egrets, turtles and ducks may be seen.

Tigers are native to Asia, and their numbers are declining. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there were about 100,000 tigers in the wild in 1920 and there are now fewer than 2,500 adults.

Siberian tigers are also known as Amur tigers. Bachuta fathered three cubs at the Milwaukee County Zoo before coming to the Bronx Zoo, where he fathered at least another three cubs.

With Nathaniel Herz

and Anthony DeStefano

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