Escaped tiger sends visitors scrambling at Miami park

MIAMI — A Bengal tiger named Mahesh escaped his habitat and was on the loose at Jungle Island for a time Saturday, sending hundreds of frightened guests and staff scrambling for safety and then cowering for more than an hour at the Watson Island attraction.

No one was seriously injured, but four people who were scuffed up in the scramble were treated on the spot and a fifth was taken to a Miami hospital with a panic attack, said Miami Fire Rescue Lt. Ignatius Carroll.

Miami Police in turn called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to dispatch an inspector and launch an investigation at the park, which is on the busy MacArthur Causeway that links downtown Miami to Miami Beach.

"The animal is not at fault here,'' said FWC spokesman Jorge Pino, explaining that the agency would decide whether the episode was caused by human error or a mechanical failure.

The trouble began before noon, according to spokeswoman Ashley Serrate, when two trainers were transporting a Gibbon named Watson past the tiger enclosure in a travel kennel for a vaccination.

It just so happened, she said, that the kennel's lock was broken.

Watson got free. Mahesh, a 3-year-old who weighs 500 to 600 pounds, got excited. Somehow, for the first time, he hurled himself 14 feet in the air -- and over a fence that separated three big cats from the public portion of the park.

The park's staff veterinarian, Dr. Jason Chatfield, who has worked there for two years, later disputed the account. He said that the Gibbon on the loose had likewise escaped his habitat through a suspected combination of "mechanical breakdown'' and "human error'' and it was not known how Mahesh scaled the 14-foot fence.

"The cat did escape,'' he said, adding that Mahesh and two other big cats would all be confined to a "night kennel,'' a hurricane proof cement structure, while the park investigated.

"We're going to make the enclosure safe,'' said Chatfield, the park's general curator, committing to make its finding public once Jungle Island investigated.

"We don't make it a habit to let things get out,'' he said, adding that no cat had escaped the habitat in its six or seven years.

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