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USDA inspectors check out Cave Junction cat park

CAVE JUNCTION — The bite that a tiger inflicted on an animal keeper at Great Cats World Park last month was serious enough that it actually broke the keeper's arm.

That detail about the June 16 incident was just one of several revelations contained in a newly released report filed by Josephine County Animal Protection Officer David Pitts, who visited the park the next day.

In a related development, officials confirmed that two U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors visited the park Thursday.

Pitts reported that the Great Cats general manager told him keeper Sara Romswinckel hadn't noticed that the tiger's "den" was unlocked when she pulled a cable opening a "guillotine" door, which in turn allowed the cat, a rare white Bengal tiger named Scooby, to enter the den.

When the tiger then rubbed his face against the gate, it opened, prompting Romswinckel to push her body against it an effort to close the gate, the manager told Pitts.

When the keeper then put her arm across the slightly open gate, to gain leverage, the tiger struck.

The manager, identified in the report only as "Sarah," blamed another employee for leaving the tiger's den unlocked, and blamed Romswinckel for not noticing it was unlocked.

Romswinckel suffered fractures and extensive soft-tissue damage.

Pitts reported that the tiger, if it escaped the den, could have hopped a 6-foot wooden fence.

Messages left Friday for Great Cats management to comment for this report were not returned.

In a related development, two U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors visited the park Thursday.

Department spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency was looking into the incident to determine if there were any Animal Welfare Act violations.

The biting incident is not the first for the park and its president, Craig Wagner, according to the USDA.

Five years ago, during a "photo shoot," a teenager allowed to handle a tiger and leopard was bitten by the leopard, according to a USDA complaint filed in 2013.

After that incident, a leopard was left loose and unattended inside an admission/gift shop building, whereupon an adult and toddler entered and were injured, according to a complaint filed by the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The complaint didn't specify how they were injured.

The complaint alleges several other safety and animal care violations between 2008 and 2011, including lack of adequate barriers between the public and cats on stage. The complaint against the facility is still awaiting hearing, Espinosa said.

According to the Associated Press, at least 22 people have been killed and 246 injured by exotic cats in the United States since 1990. In 2013, the head keeper at WildCat Haven Sanctuary in Sherwood, near Portland, was attacked and killed by a cougar when she was cleaning an enclosure alone.

Since 2004, Wagner has been associated with the Great Cats World Park, a popular tourist attraction located at 27919 Redwood Highway.

The park is home to more than 40 cats, including lions, leopards and tigers.

The agency said Wagner was convicted in 1993 in Wisconsin of animal neglect and was warned in 2004 about failing to provide care for three leopards and other animals.

In 2004, the park was found guilty in U.S. District Court of conspiring to violate the Endangered Species Act by agreeing to sell endangered ocelots.

Great Cats World Park is located just south of Cave Junction. Daily Courier / file photo