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San Francisco Zoo will reopen amid criminal investigations, lawsuits after tiger escape

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Posted: December 29, 2007 2:29 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    SAN FRANCISCO — Still reeling from the deadly Christmas Day tiger escape, officials said the San Francisco Zoo would reopen Jan. 3, despite a continuing criminal investigation and the shadow of possible fines and lawsuits.
    The zoo has been closed since a 350-pound Siberian tiger escaped from its enclosure, killed a teenager and severely mauled two other visitors. It is becoming increasingly clear the tiger climbed over a wall that, at 12 feet 5 inches, was about 4 feet below the recommended minimum for U.S. zoos.
    The tiger killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and mauled his friends Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23. The Dhaliwals are expected to make a full recovery.
    The zoo could face heavy fines from regulators and even be stripped of its exhibitor license. It also could be hit with a huge lawsuit by the victims or their families and face criminal charges, depending on what the police investigation finds.
    ‘‘All this legal action is likely to impact the financial viability of the zoo,’’ said Rory Little, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. ‘‘Whether the zoo can stay open is a big question.’’
    Little said it is also possible the zoo could face criminal charges of negligent homicide if the investigation finds the zoo contributed to the death and injuries of the victims.
    The zoo is already facing a lawsuit by zookeeper Lori Komejan, who was attacked last year when she fed the same tiger involved in the deadly escape. The animal mauled her arm.
    In October, Komejan sued the city of San Francisco, seeking compensation for lost wages, medical expenses and emotional distress. She accused the city, which owns the zoo property, of ‘‘housing the tigers with reckless disregard for the safety of animal handlers and members of the general public.’’
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, also could impose penalties, including fines, said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers. USDA inspectors were sent to the zoo to determine if an investigation is warranted, Rogers said.
    ‘‘They’re going to try to determine how the animal got out and whether that violated our regulations,’’ Rogers said. ‘‘A facility must have a sufficient barrier between the viewing public and the animals.’’

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