'My zookeeper daughter was mauled to death by a tiger'

Image source, Fiona McClay
Image caption,
Sarah McClay had a fascination with the natural world

The mother of a Scottish zookeeper mauled to death by a tiger at a zoo in Cumbria four years ago says she is still waiting for an apology.

Fiona McClay's daughter Sarah, 24, suffered "unsurvivable" injuries when a Sumatran tiger walked through a door that was meant to be locked, and pounced on her in May 2013.

Last year the zoo, now known as South Lakes Safari Zoo, admitted breaching health and safety laws.

It emerged a "self-locking door" was poorly maintained and malfunctioned.

The zoo, in Dalton-in-Furness, was fined £297,500 at Preston Crown Court for failing to ensure the safety of staff. This month, councillors refused a licence application for the zoo after hearing that almost 500 animals had died there within four years.

All this is little consolation to Fiona McClay who says she was offered no sympathy or support over her daughter's unnecessary death.

"I have heard nothing from the zoo. I've still heard nothing," she told BBC Radio Scotland.

"The only contact I've had with the owner of the zoo was at one of the preliminary hearings to the prosecution case brought by the council, and he held a door open for me, just as anyone would do."

There were no flowers from the zoo at Sarah's funeral. Her mother claims there was even some question over whether her work colleagues would be able to attend.

Image caption,
Padang, the tiger that killed Sarah, had been outside minutes before the attack

Ms McClay remains upset about comments made in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy which seemed to imply Sarah was to blame.

"I remember the zoo owner stating to the press that Sarah was in the wrong place. And he was also saying that she had done something wrong.

"That was hard to understand. Whenever I was given permission to read the police statement that the owner had given, he was saying things about a person I did not know."

Fiona recalls how her daughter's fascination with wildlife began at an early age. Family pets included stick insects, hamsters, ferrets, rats and geckos.

"It was wild things - it wasn't just animals. It was wildlife and flowers and everything about that natural world that affected her."

She studied animal conservation and biology at university. Her first jobs were part-time, as a veterinary nurse and promoting the conservation of red squirrels.

Image source, Fiona McClay
Image caption,
Fiona McClay still uses a family snap taken at the animal park when Sarah was a child on her Facebook page

As a child she had visited South Lakes Wild Animal Park, as it was formerly known.

When a job there came up, she embraced the chance to work full-time with animals.

"She was always first there and was always last to leave. It wasn't just a nine to five job," said her mother.

Initially working with birds, Sarah, originally from Glasgow, was soon given a role caring for the big cats.

"She was so excited about it because it was greater responsibility."

Her mother believes she was happy in her work - although she had misgivings about the way staff were treated and was investigating the possibility of setting up a trade union.

Image caption,
The tiger walked into the tiger house though a door that was meant to be locked

The day Sarah was fatally injured she remembers the "terrible" four-hour drive from Scotland to the hospital in Lancashire.

"I was telling myself the best, that perhaps she had been maimed in some way and had lost a limb, something like that. I don't think it ever went through my head that she had passed away until I was actually told."

Fiona draws some meagre solace from medical evidence that her daughter's death would have been quick.

The family asked for the tiger, Padang, not to be put down at the time but he was euthanised because of his age last year.

The zoo's owner, David Gill, no longer has any role in the running of the zoo. It remains open, run by Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd, pending an appeal against the decision not to grant an operating licence.

Fiona McClay believes the zoo should be closed for now - although not, perhaps, indefinitely.

In the meantime, she lives with the memory of a child who had grown up to become a friend, sharing secrets - but whose potential was cut short by one of the creatures she loved.

"When people say when you lose child, they lose a part of their life, it's absolutely true.

"It's not to say that every day I'm in tears and every moment I'm thinking about Sarah but there are times every day when I think 'I should have told Sarah that'."

The BBC contacted David Gill's solicitor about Fiona McClay's comments. He said his client was unwilling to offer any comment on any matter relating to the zoo while the licence was under the legal and regulatory process.

The current operator of the zoo, Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd, issued the following statement: "We have work to do, we know we do. A modern zoo should continually strive to be better in all it does.

"We are pushing hard to meet our goals, without compromise to achieve high standards for the animals in our care and for our staff and local community and we drive forward to earn Safari Zoo its place in the modern zoo community. Your support is all the more vital now."