Some knew Stacey Feige Konwiser as the Palm Beach Zoo’s “tiger whisperer,” a person who communicated with its four Malayan cats in a language they understood.
The 38-year-old was killed Friday by one of three male tigers she worked with every day. She was preparing for a 2 p.m. Tiger Talk at the zoo, at which officials answer questions about one of their signature animal “experiences.”
“I can’t put into words or make you understand, for anyone who didn’t know Stacey, how much she loved these tigers and how much this zoo family loved her. And while she’s no longer with us, her memory will live on,” zoo spokeswoman Naki Carter said.
Much of Konwiser’s life revolved around the cats. Her Facebook profile photo shows a handsome tiger she jokingly referred to as “the newest man in my life.”
She even painted her face to resemble a tiger and wore a tiger-ear headband and bow at the dedication of the new tiger habitat at the Palm Beach Zoo on March 7 last year.
While her love of animals was evident, it’s not known how she came into direct contact with the tiger Friday.
“Something had to have gone wrong. Even at the zoo, you don’t come into contact with the big cats, maybe cubs. They have policies at the zoo, and they have to follow the guidelines of the American Zoological Association,” said Mark McCarthy, director of McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary in The Acreage.
McCarthy speculated that perhaps a gate or door was not properly latched.
McCarthy’s is home to 22 big cats and 200 animals in total on 5 acres. In the business for 44 years, McCarthy said he has known a dozen people who were killed by big cats they owned. Although people who work with tigers love the animals, the massive creatures with claws cannot be trusted.
“Tigers, like all the big cats, are very sneaky. They will act like the sweetest things. Once you get in there, they totally change their attitude. They don’t even have to want to kill you to kill you,” McCarthy said, adding that a mere swipe of a tiger’s paw on a human can break the person’s neck.
While she had a playful side, Konwiser had a brilliant intellect when it came to animal-related research.
Konwiser obtained her Masters of Conservation Biology degree from the University of Queensland in Australia.
She was the coordinator of a project on sand cats, a small desert cat, and authored a 2007 paper on female koala behavior in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science” while affiliated with the university.
Before taking the job at the Palm Beach Zoo, where her husband Jeremy Konwiser is also a zookeeper, Konwiser worked at The Living Desert, a 360-acre wilderness preserve in Palm Desert, Calif. She worked as a zookeeper there from May 25, 2003, to Jan. 28, 2013, when she left for West Palm Beach, said spokeswoman Dawn Petrick.
“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to her entire family and I’m sure many friends,” Petrick said.