A tiger attacked an 18-year-old girl and caused extensive injury to her right arm after she said she tripped and fell toward the animal's cage last month at Tiger Haven in Roane County, an incident report revealed.
The young woman, who said she lived and worked at the big cat sanctuary, told wildlife officers she was changing the water of a tiger named Eeyore when she lost her footing in the mud and her hand went through a grate on the side of the cage.
"He just grabbed my hands and yanked my arm in and kept moving up my arm and yanking me in and got me in as far as he can get me and kept pulling and pulling," she told Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency officers.
The young woman recounted "screaming and screaming" for help until other workers arrived. The tiger, she said, pinned her up against the cage.
Another employee said he jammed a stalk of bamboo into the animal's mouth, forcing it to release her arm, the report states.
Her right arm was "de-gloved," the officers reported, meaning the skin and flesh had been pulled off during the attack. At the time of her TWRA interview a week later, it was not clear whether doctors would have to amputate. She has since been discharged from UT Medical Center, a spokesperson said.
A representative for Tiger Haven referred multiple requests for comment to the sanctuary's attorney Sunday evening. He has not yet responded to 10News.
The attorney who said he represented the victim said she was not doing well and has had five surgeries to try to keep her arm. Even if doctors don't need to amputate, he said, she may never regain use of it.
Chapter one: "Not a mean cat"
In her interview with TWRA officers, the victim said the tiger was normally not aggressive.
"He’s actually not a mean cat," she said. "It was just time for him to eat. He saw something to eat he tried to eat it."
The young woman was making her normal rounds on the morning of January 25 to refresh the water in some of the tigers' cages. She said she slipped and caught her right hand on a section of the cage with more space between bars.
That's when the animal attacked.
"I had to literally scream and scream until somebody heard me," she told officers. Other employees came running from across the large property, home to nearly 300 big cats.
"Instant panic. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody had a plan for if anything was to happen. So it was very very chaotic. So people were running around, screaming. It was just crazy," she said of the scene.
In a 911 call to Roane County dispatchers, an employee remained calm but spoke with urgency as she asked for help.
"Somebody got grabbed by one of the tigers," the unnamed employee said. "She's injured badly. Please hurry."
Other employees put the victim's arm in a tourniquet and tightened a belt around her shoulder in an attempt to stop the bleeding, body camera video showed. They held a tarp to protect her from the drizzling rain.
It took an ambulance nearly half an hour to arrive, she said.
When deputies arrived on the scene, Eeyore the tiger was in a locked box. It's unclear what happened to the animal after they left.
TWRA officers inspected the integrity of the cage and determined the victim did not have the keys necessary to get inside nor was there major structural damage from the attack.
Chapter two: "Any chance you were there to pet the tiger?"
After the ambulance crew began treating the victim, Tiger Haven staff and Roane County deputies began to question how the attack happened.
It occurred in an area where the fence bars were spaced further apart, several feet from where the young woman would've been changing the animal's water.
"She shouldn't have been over there," a woman identified as Tiger Haven founder Mary Lynn Haven told deputies on body camera footage.
The TWRA investigative file indicates officers examined this discrepancy closely. In a photo, workers pose to show perspective in the distance between the water bowl and the site of the attack.
In the aftermath of the attack, the sanctuary founder indicated to deputies she suspected the victim was petting the animal, against facility policy, according to body camera video.
"He was a hand-raised cat. I'm not saying he's tame, but he's friendly," she said. "She probably got away with it every day and then one day....it's play to them."
Later, in their hospital bed interview with the victim, TWRA officers posed the question directly:
"No chance you stuck your arm in there?"
"No," the victim said with a laugh, then added more strongly: "No!"
Her attorney strongly disputed that claim, calling it baseless. He said his client never changed her story from when it first happened and feels "betrayed" by the insinuation otherwise.
Chapter three: A longtime sanctuary
Tiger Haven, located about 30 miles west of Knoxville describes itself as a sanctuary and rescue facility for big cats. It opened in 1991 and said it does not breed the animals.
In a 2020 interview with 10News, founder Mary Lynn Haven said the facility runs mostly on donations and is not open to the public.
"People need to do it from their heart to take care of the animals. We're not here to entertain and neither is the animal," she said. "Most of these animals, they've earned the right to have their privacy."
Haven said her animals come from backyards, circuses, and cub-petting operations like the one described in the hit Netflix's show "Tiger King."
Nine workers live on the property full-time and food comes in the form of a 40,000-pound truckload of beef every three weeks, but Haven said she runs a different sort of operation from the kind depicted in the show.
"It's not a nine-to-five, it's a lifestyle for sure. But it doesn't have to be a bizarre lifestyle," she said.
According to its website, Tiger Haven is currently home to 265 big cats, including tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, and jaguars. They also house 11 smaller cat species, which include serval, caracal, bobcat, and lynx.
Tiger Haven is licensed by the state to legally keep the animals. An employee told Roane County deputies in January that the facility had never before had a tiger attack.