A volunteer at Carole Baskin's Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, was hospitalized Thursday morning after a tiger "nearly" tore her arm off.
Candy Couser, a five-year veteran of the animal sanctuary, went to feed a tiger named Kimba and noticed that he was locked in a separate area from his usual feeding spot, Baskin told USA TODAY in an email. Couser called a coordinator via radio to ask why he had been moved, and proceeded to open a door that had been "clipped shut."
"This is our universal signal NOT to open a gate without the coordinator coming to assist, but Candy said she just wasn't thinking when she reached in to un clip it," Baskin said. "It is against our protocols for anyone to stick any part of their body into a cage with a cat in it."
The tiger "grabbed her arm and nearly tore it off at the shoulder," Baskin said. One employee later recalled seeing the arm was "barely attached and holding on by a little bit of skin underneath" in an audio recording provided to USA TODAY.
Fellow volunteers "heard the commotion and came running," at which point the tiger released Couser from his grip. Three volunteers, one of them a nurse, worked to stop the bleeding and preserve Couser's arm while others called an ambulance.
Couser remained conscious and "insisted that she did not want Kimba Tiger to come to any harm for this mistake," Baskin added. One team member recalled she kept repeating that she felt "so stupid" for opening the gate.
Around 8:30 a.m. – less than 20 minutes later – paramedics arrived after receiving a call about an animal bite and treated the injury on the scene before transporting the victim to a local hospital, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue PIO Eric Seidel.
Big Cat Rescue's website states that the sanctuary is currently closed to the public due to coronavirus safety concerns. All staff and volunteers working Thursday met to discuss what had occurred, during which Baskin broke into tears thanking her team for jumping into action quickly and offered grief counseling to team members.