A 400-pound Siberian tiger named Bachuta soon will be back on display at the Bronx Zoo after a bizarre incident in which a man jumped from the monorail into the tiger den and suffered severe injuries. Zoo workers distracted the cat long enough for the man to escape.
Little is known about the man, identified by relatives and friends as David M. Villalobos, 25, of Mahopac, N.Y. He was hospitalized with broken bones and bites suffered during the roughly 10 minutes he was in direct contact with the tiger.
Zoo director Jim Breheny said it was the first time in the monorail’s 35 years of operation that someone had done what Villalobos did Friday afternoon: take a flying leap about 17 feet to the ground, clearing the wall surrounding the enclosure where Bachuta was spending his day.
Villalobos survived because of the actions of the tiger and zoo workers, said Breheny. “Tigers are extremely capable predators. What they typically do is grab a prey animal either by the head or by the back of the neck, and it’s over very quickly,” he said. “This cat did not do this to the individual. I think it was just the tiger’s response and the fact we got there so quickly ... that saved the guy’s life.”
“I think it’s safe to say if the tiger really wanted to do harm to this individual, he certainly would have had the time to do that,” Breheny added. “The tiger did nothing wrong in this case at all.”
The man had been visiting the zoo by himself and was in the last car of the Monorail, whose wagon-like cars are not enclosed but have railings to keep people inside of them. Villalobos, though, climbed over the railing and jumped.
“This is the first incident of its kind,” said Breheny, defending the monorail’s safety record and adding, “When someone is determined to do something very harmful to themselves, it is very hard to stop them.”
After zoo workers were alerted that someone was in the tiger den, they arrived within minutes and used a fire extinguisher to distract Bachuta. Once the tiger had moved away from Villalobos, the zoo staff directed him to roll under an electrical wire that the animals know not to approach for fear of being shocked.
Villalobos was conscious and talking, and he did what zoo workers told him to do, said Breheny.
Bachuta is an 11-year-old tiger who has been at the zoo for about three years. He is one of several tigers living at the zoo’s 43-acre Wild Asia exhibit, which is visible only from the monorail.
Tigers are the largest of the world’s big cats and human-tiger encounters rarely end well for humans, making the Bronx Zoo incident all the more remarkable.
In 1985, Bronx Zoo employee Robin Silverman was killed when she walked into the Wild Asia exhibit and was mauled by two Siberian tigers.
On Christmas Day in 2007, 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. died after a tiger escaped its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. Officials later said Sousa and two companions had taunted the tiger, which was able to climb over the wall and chase them down. That tiger was killed by police.
Breheny said despite Friday’s incident, it was a “good day” at the zoo because of the ending. “We have the cat which is still alive, and we have this guy that we pulled out of this exhibit and he’s still alive,” he said.
Villalobos’ Facebook page suggests a man absorbed with nature, animals, women’s rights issues, and the environment. One friend, Paul Giarraputo, told the local ABC affiliate that lately he had become concerned with some of the postings. “It seemed a little strange,” he said.
[For the record, 1:37 p.m. Sept. 23: An earlier version of this post said Brox Zoo employee Robin Silverman was killed in 2005. Actually, it was 1985.]