The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday cleared the San Diego Wild Animal Park of any wrongdoing in the escape last weekend of a Sumatran tiger that park officials eventually shot and killed.
In a one-paragraph letter that came the day after a USDA inspector investigated, agency officials said "the tiger enclosure had been properly constructed to contain the animals and the washout of the foundation that did occur could not have been foreseen."
The letter went on to say the park just outside Escondido had "attempted to recapture the animal and resorted to shooting it only when it was determined that the continued freedom of the animal posed a possible threat to the public."
"We expected these results," park spokesman Tom Hanscom said. "We had considered the washout of the exhibit an unfortunate act of God and the shooting of the cat to be right and necessary given the circumstances."
The 300-pound tiger, one of an endangered species, was shot and killed after it escaped from its one-acre fenced enclosure Saturday after storms had washed away the earth beneath a chain-link fence, leaving a three-foot gap.
While the letter said the park "did have an (animal) escape policy and that policy was followed," no judgment was made on the completeness or quality of the policy.
The investigation had been requested by San Diego Animal Advocates, an animal rights group that claimed the park could have prevented the escape and the subsequent shooting.
Sally Mackler, director of the organization, said she was not surprised by the USDA's conclusions, accusing the department of having a history of settling for "minimum standards" of animal safety.
"Unfortunately, saying after the fact that their enclosure was properly constructed didn't save that cat's life," Mackler said.
"I disagree that the situation was unforeseen. It takes only common sense to anticipate erosion during real bad weather. Didn't they realize that people were getting swept away by mudslides out there?"
But Hanscom, who had previously compared the group to "circling vultures," said the park feels vindicated.
"We have no question that we did things right and are happy to see some confirmation of that from an outside agency," he said.
Hanscom said he expects a full report on the incident to be issued sometime next week.
The escape of the male tiger was the first time in the Wild Animal Park's 20-year history that an animal was shot and killed after it escaped from its enclosure.
The fence has been rebuilt and tigers will be returned to the exhibit today, Hanscom said.