SAN FRANCISCO – If Tony the twice-widowed Siberian tiger was still grieving, he did a fine job of disguising it while licking his flame-colored paws for the few visitors who braved rain and a redolence of death to welcome him back.
The big cat exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo reopened to the public Thursday for the first time since Tony's mate, a 250-pound female named Tatiana, killed a teenager, mauled his two friends and was shot to death by police after escaping the pair's enclosure on Christmas Day.
The open air grotto has higher walls, glass barriers and electrified wires to prevent another animal from getting out. San Francisco resident and zoo member Breanne King brought her two daughters, ages 4 and 10, to get a firsthand look at the safety measures, as well as at Tony and the Sumatran tiger and two lions that are his neighbors.
"They are such beautiful animals," marveled King, who said she had been back to the zoo only once since the fatal attack but was pleased with the improvements. "I wanted to check it out and see if it's as safe as they said it was."
The lions and tigers were kept indoors for nearly two months, from the day of Tatiana's escape until the refinements were finished on Monday. Robert Jenkins, the zoo's director of animal care, said the cats were kept stimulated with a steady stream of new playthings — balls sprinkled with spices and urine from other animals — and by showing them Disney's "The Lion King" and nature films.
From what zoo staff can tell, the animals were responding well to their new digs and could move between the outdoor exhibit and their indoor enclosures as they pleased, according to Jenkins.
"They have no fear of coming back out, no signs of stress. The whole treatment program and management process while they were inside worked," he said.
The zoo plans to give the big cats another few days to get used to interacting with visitors again before resuming public feedings of the animals on Tuesday, Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he is scheduled to meet with officials from the organization that accredits the nation's zoos in two weeks to report on the safety upgrades given the exhibit. The grotto now has 19-foot-high barriers — nearly 7 feet higher than the wall at the time of the attack and about 3 feet higher than the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends.
The families of Carlos Sousa Jr., the 17-year-old boy Tatiana killed outside the enclosure, and of the two brothers who were injured by the tiger before she was shot, have indicated they plan to sue the nonprofit group that runs the zoo and the city of San Francisco, which owns the grounds and the animals.
Like King and her girls, Boston resident Rachel Leigh said she had been scheduled to visit the zoo on the day after Christmas, when it was closed because of concerns about visitor safety. She returned Thursday, unaware it was a special occasion for the lions and tigers until she and her friend got there.
"I like animals," she shrugged.
King had it a little harder. Kristina, her 10-year-old, was old enough to know about what happened at the zoo on Christmas Day and still had questions it.
"Why did Tatiana kill somebody?" the girl asked.
"She didn't mean to," her mother said.
"Those boys were messing with her."
"That's what they say. We will never know because we weren't there."
The surviving victims of the attack have said through their lawyer they did nothing to provoke the animal.