THE zoo keeper who was fatally attacked by a tiger at Hamilton Zoo yesterday was a mother of two who loved her family, colleagues and job.
The family and colleagues of Samantha Kudeweh, who died after being attacked by Oz the male Sumatran tiger at her workplace yesterday, have released a statement this morning.
Mrs Kudeweh grew up in Papakura and studied at the University of Auckland, said the statement, issued by Mrs Kudeweh's colleague Catherine Nichols.
She moved across the Tasman to work for Melbourne Zoos, where she met her husband Richard. The pair married and returned to New Zealand in 2005 to work at Hamilton Zoo.
"Samantha has two beautiful children with Richard - Billy, 9, and Sage, 3," said the statement.
"The zoo was a crucial part of Samantha's life, second only to her family. She appreciated what Richard called 'intelligent humour', and loved the people around her and those she worked alongside."
Mrs Nichols said family and friends were gathered at the Kudeweh's Waikato home following the horrific tragedy.
"The extended Kudeweh family wanted to thank the public and the global zoo and conservation community for their messages of support over the past 24-hours after news of Sam's death became public."
She said Mrs Kudeweh was recognised and respected globally as a "talented, passionate and highly knowledgeable conservation and zoo professional whose expertise and understanding of animals was highly sought after by other zoos and captive animal breeding programmes".
"Samantha was an experienced zoo industry professional who had an exceptional reputation following more than 20 years in the conservation and zoo sector.
"Samantha was a passionate conservationist, and today her family have recalled how as an intermediate school student she told her parents she wanted to work in the zoo sector.
"She was a volunteer at Auckland Zoo for a number of years before joining the staff."
In 2011 Mrs Kudeweh was promoted to zoo curator, "achieving one of her professional dreams", said Mrs Nichols.
"It gave her the opportunity to become involved in a number of species management programmes, an area of conservation which she had a passion for.
"She was responsible for managing breeding programmes for a number of species, including the southern white rhino, and was able to influence the zoo sector across Australasia."
She was also an important part of a nationwide programme to help rebuild populations of native species.
Mrs Nichols said family and friends asked for privacy while they grieved and made arrangements Samantha's farewell.
Mrs Kudeweh's Colleagues are said to be stunned by her death, as security around the big cat enclosure if extremely tight.
It is still not known how Ms Kudeweh, known as Sam, came to be inside the enclosure with the big cat.
This morning a family friend of Ms Kudeweh told Radio New Zealand she would be sorely missed.
Nicholas van der Sande, whose daughter worked with Ms Kudeweh at Hamilton Zoo, told the broadcaster she was known for her competence and professionalism.
"I know that most of the staff and my daughter and partner thought the world of her," he said.
There were strict rules for dealing with the animals.
"There's such a rigid protocol that they go through as far as checking that gates are locked and they are never in with the tigers, they are never in the same enclosure as them."
Ms Kudeweh was extremely knowledgeable in zoo keeping, he said.
Meanwhile, Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker spoke to Newstalk ZB this morning, and described the death as a "very sad time" for the zoo and council, which owns the facility.
"Sam was highly respected and well regarded," she said.
"The zoo team are a very close knit group, so really all rallying around to support them and the family at the moment."
Hamiltonians had been sharing their grief with zoo staff, and posting messages across social media, she said. Council was helping to offer support to grieving staff.
It was not yet known exactly what happened, she said.
"We don't know the full story at all."
The police, WorkSafe New Zealand and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) were all conducting investigations, she said.
"So at this stage we really have to wait and see what those deliver. We're not clear yet, so I'm expecting that later this week we'll know that."
She would have to wait for the results of the investigations before she could say whether there were any implications for Hamilton City Council, Ms Hardaker said.
However, she was confident the zoo was well run.
"The zoo is much loved and it's highly regarded, and yes we have all the protocols etc in place, so as an owner we have no concerns about that," she said.
"But these processes we're going through are really important to see exactly what did happen."
She hoped to have the results of the police investigation within the next couple of days, but believed WorkSafe and MPI would "take a little bit longer".
The main gates of Hamilton Zoo are open this morning but the zoo itself remains closed. The facility is expected to remain locked until Thursday while the investigations take place.
Six bouquets of flowers sit to the side of the reception doors, the only reminder of Sunday's horrific and fatal attack by Oz.
Half a dozen vehicles are in the main car park, likely those of staff or officials investigating yesterday's incident.
- Additional reporting by Belinda Feek of the New Zealand Herald
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