Adam Wilkerson was visiting the jaguar exhibit on Saturday evening at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park near Litchfield Park — one last stop before he planned to leave — when a young woman ran around the corner.
"Help! Help! Somebody help!" she yelled.
Wilkerson and his mother, who were at the zoo with his two children, ran around the corner where a jaguar had another young woman pinned up against the cage — its claw piercing the woman's arm.
Wilkerson's mother grabbed a water bottle from his children's stroller and tried to jam it through a hole in the cage in an attempt to distract the cat. It worked, sort of, with the cat dislodging its claw from the woman's arm, but keeping its grasp on her sweatshirt.
At that point, Wilkerson and other onlookers grabbed the woman and pulled her away from the cage.
"The whole thing happened in a minute-and-a-half tops. It was adrenaline the whole time," he said.
According to information from Rural Metro Fire Department and Wildlife World Zoo, the woman crossed a barrier to get closer to the jaguar enclosure to take a selfie. The cat reached out and scratched her arm.
Fire crews took the woman to a nearby hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.
Her name, age and hometown have not been released.
Woman's arm 'in pretty bad shape'
Wilkerson said after they were able to pull the woman away from the jaguar, she "fell down in agony."
An employee from the zoo called 911 after the attack, explained what happened and told the operator the woman’s arm “was in pretty bad shape.”
The 911 operator advised her to keep pressure on the wound, “Keep the cloth on it. Don’t take the cloth off. If it bleeds through, just put another one on top of that, OK?” the operator told her.
“OK,” the employee said. “She’s in, like, pain, like really bad pain.”
“I bet,” the 911 operator said. “We’ve got the fire department en route. We’re going to be there shortly.”
The Wildlife World Zoo, located near Northern Avenue and Loop 303, is a USDA-licensed, private facility with more than 600 species and 6,000 animals on display and is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums, according to its website.
The USDA didn't find any compliance issues with the facility during its most recent routine inspection in March 2018.
Woman crossed barrier to be near cat
Kristy Morcom, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife World Zoo confirmed the incident Saturday evening.
"The visitor sustained non life threatening injuries to their hand from one of our female jaguars. At the request of the family, paramedics were called. At no time was the animal out of its enclosure," she said.
Wilkerson said there is a barrier between the viewing area and the jaguar's cage, but it would be easy for someone to clear.
He said the barrier was about waist-height and surrounded by some shrubbery.
"Any teenager or adult could reach in and touch the cage if they wanted to, (but) it doesn't feel advised to do so," Wilkerson said. "If someone were so inclined to touch the cage, they could if they wanted to."
Morcom, the zoo's spokeswoman, did not return calls seeking additional information on Sunday.
Cat will not be euthanized
When news of the jaguar attack broke, animal advocates feared the zoo would decide to euthanize the cat in response to the attack, as has occurred in other high-profile zoo animal attacks. Most notably, Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo that was killed after a three-year-old climbed into the enclosure.
The majority of social media comments blamed the woman for endangering herself and hoped the jaguar wouldn't be punished.
"We can promise you nothing will happen to our jaguar. She’s a wild animal and there were proper barriers in place to keep our guests safe — not a wild (animal's) fault when barriers are crossed. Still sending prayers to her and her family," the zoo said in a tweet, responding to a concerned Twitter user.
768 big cat attacks in 25 years
Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit organization based out of Florida, operates one of the largest big cat wildlife sanctuaries in the world and works to end big-cat abuse in captivity and prevent extinction.
According to research by the organization, there were 768 big cat killings, maulings and escapes in the U.S. involving captive exotic cats between 1990-2015.
The organization tracked headlines across the country to determine that number. According to its website, "there is no reporting agency that keeps such records (so) the actual numbers are certainly much higher."
Seven of the 768 total incidents occurred in Arizona, according to Big Cat Rescue's data.
The organization was able to determine the cat species for 571 of the incidents. Of those incidents, nine involved a jaguar.
Big Cat Rescue allows visitors to view their 80-plus tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards and other big cats, but they consider their sanctuary different than a typical zoo, according to the organization's website.
Mostly because their animals were "abandoned, abused, orphaned, saved from being turned into fur coats or retired from performing acts" — not bred for captivity.
According to the website, Big Cat Rescue "gives educational tours instead of letting the public wander around. This prevents cats from being teased, harassed, or tormented by guests."
Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman of Big Cat Rescue, said the organization would prefer not to see big cats in captivity, but if they must be, they prefer zoos with an Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation, "where at least they're going to be provided for with the higher level of standards they have to maintain."
Wildlife World Zoo has a Zoological Association of America accreditation.
Zoo packed on Sunday
The attack didn't seem to scare away visitors on Sunday afternoon. A steady stream of families pushing children in strollers arrived at the zoo, which is located west of Luke Air Force Base in the middle of vacant land near Northern Avenue and Loop 303.
Dave Keller of Glendale came to the park with his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. He had planned to visit for a week and said the jaguar attack didn't dissuade him at all.
The family said they checked out the jaguar's enclosure but didn't see the animal there on Sunday.
The jaguar attack was viewed as a cautionary lesson for some zoo-goers on Sunday.
Jaguars are "definitely not house cats," said Michael Hoffman of Peoria, as he finished a tour of the zoo on Sunday and waited outside for his group to catch up.
He said when he was inside the zoo, he saw people trying to reach out and "high-five" monkeys with their hands and also feed birds that weren't meant to be fed. If anyone saw the story about the jaguar attack, they didn't take a lesson from it, he said.
Joanna Elm of Cottonwood visited the zoo with her family on Sunday and said she felt perfectly safe. She, and many other visitors, questioned why someone reportedly crossed over a barrier while trying to take a selfie on Saturday.
"Anyone with common sense knows not to cross the barrier," Elm said.
Other high-profile jaguar attacks, escapes
There have been a handful of high-profile jaguar incidents at zoos across the world in the past few years.
But unlike the situation at Wildlife World Zoo, which involved a visitor entering an area that was supposed to be closed off from the public, these accounts involve the jaguars escaping from their enclosures.
Earlier this year, a jaguar escaped its enclosure in a Dubai zoo after workers left the cage door open, according to media reports.
The cat attacked its two zookeepers. Another zoo employee rescued the men by using a fire extinguisher to distract the jaguar. Both were expected to make a full recovery.
In July 2018, a 3-year-old male jaguar escaped from its New Orleans zoo enclosure and killed nine animals — five alpacas, three foxes and an emu — in the middle of the night, according to reports.
The zoo reopened its jaguar exhibit last month, according to local news reports.
In May 2017, a jaguar scaled a rock wall in its exhibit and escaped at the Abilene Zoo in Texas. The cat killed a spider monkey before it was located by zoo employees.
None of the big cats involved in these incidents appear to have been euthanized as a result of the incidents.
Attack witness won't be back soon
As for Wilkerson, who witnessed the attack and captured part of it on cell-phone video, he says he won't be back to the zoo any time soon, even though he knows this was a "freak accident" and not a common occurrence.
He said he wished the best for the woman and the zoo moving forward.
"Somebody did something they shouldn't do and there was a consequence ... But I hope she makes a full recovery and really just has a lesson learned," he said.