On June 21st, 23-year-old Marissa Dub was working through her usual routine of cleaning and watering cages at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Centerpoint, when she was attacked by a Tiger.
The tiger pounced on Marissa Dub and pinned her to the ground, her screams were heard by her co-workers. By the time they got there, the tiger had her head locked within its jaws.
Exotic Feline Rescue Center Director Joe Taft sprayed it with the hose, while employees tried to lure it off Dub with some meat.
‘We were able to verbally command the tiger off of her and get the tiger secured in the shift cage,” he says.
Dub was airlifted to the hospital where she was listed in critical condition. The tiger attack left her with a broken jaw, injured her back and paralyzed the left side of her face.
Tiger Attack Sparks OSHA Investigation
Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesperson Bob Dittmer says serious work injuries automatically spark safety investigations.
“In November we issued a safety order based on our findings from the investigation. We found seven serious violations and two knowing violation of safety issues at the site,” he says.
Fines attached to violations total nearly $70,000.
They included not properly recording work injuries, not documenting training and work protocols and not having the required protective equipment or access to potable water.
But none of the violations were more contentious than the height of the fences enclosing the animals.
“They were saying that we knowingly exposed our employees to life threatening danger because our fences were not 18 ft. tall,” Taft says.
Standards For Fence Heights Are Unclear
OSHA hasn’t established any of its own standards for wildlife facilities. Instead it relies on USDA’s regulations.
Taft argues those standards aren’t clear. And he’s not alone.
Lori Gagen, the Executive Director of Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion, Ind., says the USDA rules don’t outline exactly how tall a fence is suppose to be.
“The USDA regulations are very vague and that is one of the problems we have here in America is that each inspector has an awful lot of leeway,” Gagen says.
Instead, the USDA guidelines state enclosures need to be of “sufficient height to keep animals and unauthorized persons out.”
IOSHA based its citations against the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on a 2011 USDA inspection report.
“In their investigations they cited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center for not having a minimum of a 12 foot fence,” Dittmer says. “We use that same standard, so we cited them for the same thing.”
Unspecific USDA regulations mean the onus is left with the facilities to determine how the animals should be housed.
The tiger enclosures at the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary are 16-ft high and topped with electric wiring.
Gagen says a Tiger can easily clear a fence as high as 14-ft high.
“You can’t idiot proof the keeping of a tiger, meaning that there is no way to make that inherently safe,” Gagen says. “There is always going to be risk involved if you are taking care of a tiger or a leopard or a chimpanzee.”
Rescue Center Upgrades To Cost Millions
The Exotic Feline Rescue Center has appealed the case to the board of safety, and the case will be reviewed over the next six to 12 months. Taft says the near $70,000 fine is nothing compared the estimated $25,000 it costs to modify each of the centers 120 enclosures.
“We turn away a lot of cats for every one we take,” Taft says. “There is no questions about downsizing. My phone is continually ringing with people who have animals that are in bad shape and are desperate for a solution to their problems.”
Taft says he thinks IOSHA is being particularly harsh on his facility because of the attention the attack received, he says it really isn’t about fence heights at all.
“If our employee had not gone in the cage with the tiger, no none of this would have happened,” he says.
But IOSHA officials maintain the facility needs better enclosures and to better outline its safety procedures.
“This investigation was triggered by a very serious injury caused by one of the cats on an employee,” Dittmer says. “We were very focused on employee safety and that’s what we want to see as an outcome of this investigation.”
Marissa Dub, the woman mauled by the tiger, has since regained use of her right arm, though the paralysis to the left side of her face will be permanent, she will have a third surgery in late January.