Rosa King was killed by a tiger and visitors heard a ‘blood-curdling’ scream from the enclosure. The 33-year-old’s colleagues tried to save her by distracting the tiger with chunks of meat, according to the witnesses.
At least 100 visitors evacuated from Hamerton Zoo in Cambridgeshire as ‘all hell broke loose’ and police and paramedics rushed to the scene.
Witness Pete Davis said he believed Miss King was mauled after rushing to help a colleague in the tiger enclosure.
He said: ‘There’s no doubting it was a girl’s scream and something terrible had happened. It sounds like a tiger turned on her.
‘She had run into the enclosure after hearing one of her colleagues shouting and moments later all hell let loose.
‘She let out a blood-curdling scream and then another keeper ran out and shouted “run”.
‘It was a case of total panic. There were keepers rushing about throwing buckets of meat to try and get the tigers under control.’
Miss King’s friend, wildlife photographer Garry Chisholm, said last night: ‘I have lost a very dear friend who loved the animals in her care very much.
‘I would like to say more but I am struggling to take in this news at the moment.’
Writing on Facebook this morning, Mr Chisholm added: ‘I was deeply saddened to hear of the tragic events at Hamerton yesterday which resulted in the death of a good friend of mine.
‘Rosa was a follower of this page and I would like to make the following tribute statement in her memory:
‘Rosa wasn’t just a keeper at Hamerton Zoo – she WAS Hamerton Zoo. Her passion for the animals in her care was exceptional though her favourites were undoubtedly the cheetahs which she would refer to as her pride and joy.
‘Rosa would raise money for cheetah conservation by actively taking part in parachute jumps and I was delighted when she approached me asking if she could use one of my pictures to promote her money raising campaign.
‘I feel privileged to have known Rosa and been able to call her a friend. She will be greatly missed, not just by me but by everyone who came to know her.
‘The only consolation I can take from today’s tragic events is that Rosa is now reunited with her beloved Ares the cheetah and Blizzard and Ladybelle her beloved tigers.’
A relative of the zookeeper told The Sun: ‘She loved those animals. It’s absolutely tragic.
‘She would walk in the cheetah cage and play football with them. She was at home with them.’
Miss King went to Hardenhuish School in Chippenham, where she grew up before studying for a diploma in animal care at Wiltshire College.
She wanted to take part in skydive with four other zoo colleagues in order to raise money for the Cheetah Conservation Fund UK on July 6.
Carpenter Mr Davis, 55, who was at the small zoo with his family, said he saw keepers with their heads in their hands. He added: ‘People were really scared, they asked us to leave straight after that and closed the park.’
According to a zoo spokesperson, the staff were ‘too distressed’ to talk to the media.
He said: ‘This appears to have been a freak accident. A full investigation is under way and we hope that more details can be announced as soon as we are able.
‘At no point during the incident did any animals escape their enclosures, and at no point was public safety affected in any way. All our thoughts and sympathies are with our colleagues, friends and families at this dreadful time.’
The park will remain closed till the investigation is completed.
An air ambulance was called to the zoo near Huntingdon in an attempt to save Miss King’s life shortly after 11.30am.
Visitors to the park took to Facebook to describe what happened.
Victoria Northover Homes said: ‘We’ve just had to hide thinking a tiger was loose. Something has gone wrong with a keeper and a tiger.’
She added: ‘I was taking photos of them [the tigers] in the field, then they came directly to the fence. At this point some of the keepers came running down the hill towards the next tiger enclosure. We didn’t know what was happening but they looked worried. I carried on walking down the hill towards the next enclosure when someone shouted “run”.
‘At this point we understood by the reactions of the staff that something was going on inside the enclosure.
‘We could see staff members on the other side of the fence with pieces of meat trying to get whatever’s attention.
‘It was heart-breaking seeing them trying to help.’
Maxine Foster-Johnson said: ‘We got there as it all happened.
‘I just can’t imagine how devastating it was for the poor workmates who desperately ran to try and distract the tiger with large lumps of meat.’