LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. – The wildlife agency responsible for the shooting death of an escaped 600-pound tiger has received so many death threats that employees are being urged not to wear their uniforms this week.
The unusual directive comes a week after a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (search) officer shot Bobo the tiger after the big cat allegedly lunged at him following a 26-hour hunt for his capture.
The incident set off public outcry from people who are calling the shooting "murder," including the tiger's owner, former Tarzan actor Steve Sipek (search).
While the agency's law enforcement officers will continue to wear their uniforms, all other employees, from fishery experts to scientists, were told to wear street clothes.
"Law enforcement officers have the ability to arrest somebody. Those biologists or field staff don't," said Willie Puz, spokesman for the commission.
Puz has fielded more than 600 e-mails and phone calls from people nationwide, and he estimates that up to 95 percent of that correspondence has criticized the agency's actions. At least five death threats have been made, including one Monday from a woman who said Puz should be hanged.
"She said someone should shoot you for defending the officer and lying to the public (and) that I should be hanging from a tree," Puz said.
One caller, who Puz said "really made me nervous," invoked the name of Claude Dallas, who became a folk hero of sorts after killing two wildlife officers 23 years ago.
The public response has been so virulent that the name of the 24-year-old officer who shot Bobo has not been released and will not be available until the investigations into both the shooting and the big cat's escape are completed. Puz said he does not know if there will be a criminal investigation into the death threats.
The negative response is an unfamiliar situation for fish and wildlife officers, who are usually credited with rescuing animals or enforcing laws on fish counts. The agency previously helped return home safely two of Sipek's other large cats who wandered from his compound.
Among the hateful e-mails are some messages commending the officer's courage for going through thick brush to find a wild animal, as well as the commission for braving the public backlash.
The commission's chairman, Rodney Barreto, defended the actions of the officer in a statement.
"The tiger, which has a history of attacking a human, pinned its ears back, bared its teeth and lunged at the officer. When a tiger does that, chances are it's going to kill you, and you have a fraction of a second to react," Barreto's statement said. "But because of what our officer did, we are not mourning the loss of any local residents or responding officers."