Oz the Tiger and Samantha Kudeweh: Hamilton Zoo’s Unspeakable Tragedy

Oz the Tiger and Samantha Kudeweh: Hamilton Zoo's Unspeakable Tragedy

Like its neighbor Down Under, New Zealand has a wealth of wildlife preservation habitats and zoos.

Hamilton Zoo is one of its most beloved. Established in 1969 as the Hilldale Game Farm, it gradually grew from a small collection of exotic mammals and birds into the country’s first zoo to be fully accredited by the Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Quite a number of its exhibits are unique to the zoo, such as the Parrot Court,  Free-Flight Sanctuary (the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 200 bird species present), Chimpanzee Exhibit (featuring Auckland Zoo’s chimpanzee troop), African Animals, and the Tiger Exhibit, which is home to five of the world’s endangered Sumatran tigers.

As with many wildlife sanctuaries on this side of the globe, a big part of Hamilton Zoo’s draw is its sympathetic approach to conservation. The habitats on this 62-acre compound were especially designed to suit the animals’ needs, and many of the zookeepers are not only competent and experienced, but also have a genuine commitment to caring for and protecting their charges.

Unfortunately, even such an ideal set-up did not render Hamilton Zoo immune to perhaps the worst kind of tragedy that could occur in places like this.

On 20 September 2015, Samantha Lyn Kudeweh, a longtime zookeeper at Hamilton Zoo, was killed by one of its tigers. The then 43 year-old had been with the zoo for more than 2 decades, and was part of the team that facilitated the mating process between Sali, a female Sumatran tiger, and Oz, a male of the same species.

Ironically, further investigations on the attack concluded that it was Oz who had fatally mauled Samantha on that day, although authorities did not disclose whether the deceased was in the tiger enclosure when tragedy struck.

For a time, Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs could not rule out the possibility that Oz might be euthanized as a consequence of the attack. The Sumatran tiger’s being among the last of his species as well as his key role in the ongoing breeding program likely forestalled any such attempts, however.

Kudeweh’s accident was the first fatality in Hamilton Zoo’s history, but it wasn’t an isolated incident.

Samantha Lynda Kudeweh
Image Credit: Hamilton Zoo

Two years prior, another zookeeper walked into what she thought was an empty enclosure and found herself face to face with a five year-old female tiger, who then “playfully” ran up to her. The tiger got close enough to swat at the zookeper’s gumboots before the latter calmly and carefully made her way to the keeper gate and exited the enclosure.

As a result, a key retention padlock system for all carnivore and primate enclosures was introduced thereafter, and the zoo remains the city’s most popular tourist destination after Hamilton Gardens, attracting 120,000 visitors a year.

Two years after the tragedy, Hamilton Zoo continues to be committed to its world-class conservation efforts while its tight-knit community honors the memory of its fallen comrade. Safety and security measures within the venue have been updated accordingly, but zoo visitors can still have interactive experiences with inhabitants like the Southern white rhinoceros or the lemurs, all under the careful supervision of experienced keepers, of course.

Interested parties can visit the zoo from 9 AM to 5 PM each day at 183 Brymer Road, Hamilton New Zealand 3829. Adult tickets are priced at NZ$23 per head, while those aged 15 years and under can be admitted for NZ$11 each.

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