Handler's bravery highlighted in fatal attack by big cat

Dalu Mncube with colleague Napoleon 'Martin' Ferreira.
Dalu Mncube with colleague Napoleon 'Martin' Ferreira.
A clear and grisly account has emerged of the death of Dalu Mncube under the giant claws and teeth of a white tiger.

Brave big-cat handler Martin Ferreira punched and whacked the attacking tiger, Abu. He also sprayed Abu's face with a fire extinguisher and another staff member zapped the cat with a cattle prodder, but nothing quelled the lethal onslaught.

Ferreira's bravery at Zion Wildlife Park is a bright spot in a sad and gruesome coroner's decision on Mncube's death on May 27, 2009.

Coroner Brandt Shortland described Ferreira as selfless. Another tiger, Rewa, was in the enclosure and could have joined the attack.

Ferreira, 41, told the Herald on Sunday that the day had started like any other. He'd opened his Bible at Psalm 23. "It was about how you will go though the valley of the shadow of death but God will keep his hand over you." He had wondered to his wife, Liana: "Why this particular passage?" That night he knew.

"The Lord gave me a warning, that he was going to help me at a difficult time."

He had five years' experience with lions in his native South Africa before going to work at Zion, on the northern outskirts of Whangarei, in 2008.

Shortland's report outlines how Mncube and Ferreira had gone into the enclosure to clean. It was accepted practice for keepers to enter enclosures with cats, and was permitted by law. Shortland said it was also controversial because big cats were isolated during cleaning at other parks.

The attack had begun as Abu bit on Mncube's leg. "Martin, help me please," Mncube, 30, had calmly said. Abu had begun growling and, despite Ferreira's blows, dragged Mncube by the shoulder towards his den. Then he had bitten Mncube's head. Armed only with a cattle prod, Ferreira had approached Mncube when Abu had moved away. Another worker had shot Abu, and Mncube was taken out by ute, but it was too late to save him.

Ferreira, who shot and killed Abu, said his actions had been automatic. "I didn't really think about my own safety. I was trying to help Dalu."

He said he felt for Mncube's partner Sharon Arnott and their child, Starskea. "In the beginning it was really difficult. For the first few months going to sleep, it played over and over. It slowly got better and these days I don't think about it much." The experience had taught him life was short and to make the most of it.

Now dairy farming in Southland, the father of two said he still missed working with big cats.

Tidy up zoo laws, coroner urges

Zion Wildlife Park was a mess before Dalu Mncube died.

That's the view of Zion's government-appointed operator Glen Holland - a former Auckland Zoo keeper brought in when a rift between Zion founder Craig Busch and his mother, Patricia Busch, forced Craig out.

Holland told Coroner Brandt Shortland that he was staggered by the culture of Zion, but said Mncube was possibly the best big-cat handler he'd ever met.

After his November 2008 appointment, Holland introduced safety protocols aimed at keeping cats and people separate.

Shortland's report blamed no one for Mncube's death but recommended that zoo laws be tidied.

Zoos were currently subject to three acts, making it complex and unworkable at times, he said.

- by Kathryn Powley of the Herald on Sunday

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