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.
"You guys did amazing, absolutely amazing. Thank you so much, because you probably saved her life," Baskin said. "And you may have saved her arm. So thank you for being here and doing that... I know everybody feels really bad about this because we all love Candy so much and she's such a sweet person."
Baskin said the tiger is "being placed in quarantine for the next 30 days as a precaution, but was just acting normal due to the presence of food and the opportunity," though she noted the CDC has the right to euthanize an animal that bites someone.
Baskin, made famous by Netflix's "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" true crime docuseries, recently appeared on "Dancing With the Stars," where she performed on-brand songs "Eye of the Tiger," "What's New Pussycat" and "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King" before being sent home during Week 3.
Big Cat Rescue is currently closed due to coronavirus concerns, but also in part due to safety concerns over "unknown" visitors because of the popularity and controversy surrounding "Tiger King," according to its website.
"We don’t know if we will ever resume doing general public tours again," reads a statement on the website. "Even after the virus concerns subside, the betrayal by the liars who produced Tiger King, and the lies viewers were told in the series, creates a concern about having visitors we do not know."
On Thursday, the House of Representatives is set to pass legislation championed by Baskin that addresses the trade and ownership of big cats.
The bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, would ban the private ownership of big cats like lions and tigers, which Baskin and Big Cat Rescue, her husband Howard's organization, have spent thousands of dollars and years lobbying for. It would allow existing facilities to keep their big cats and exotic animals but would prohibit most contact between the public and the animals.
Carole Baskin told USA TODAY she was "thrilled" the legislation was finally coming up for a vote, calling it part of a "decades-long effort" to end the abuse of cubs and private ownership of big cats.
She added: "The fact that, despite our intense safety protocols and excellent record of safety, an injury like this can occur just confirms the inherent danger in dealing with these animals and why we need the Big Cat Public Safety Act to eliminate having them untracked in backyards around the country and ending up in sanctuaries where wonderful people like Candy Couser have committed themselves to providing care for those discarded by the pay to play industry."
Contributing: Nicholas Wu
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carole Baskin's Big Cat Rescue volunteer attacked by tiger