Tiger attack costs Ontario game park $2.5-million
keralanext.com ^ | 01/28/05

A former exotic dancer and her ex-boyfriend who were mauled by a Bengal tiger nearly nine years ago have been awarded more than $2.5-million from African Lion Safari.

Madam Justice Jean MacFarland yesterday rejected claims that David Balac, 31, and Jennifer-Anne Cowles, 28, ignored posted signs at the game park warning visitors not to feed the animals and to keep their car windows rolled up.

Judge MacFarland found the Rockton, Ont., park strictly liable and awarded Mr. Balac $1.7-million and Ms. Cowles $813,000.

"There is no question . . . that tigers are dangerous, unpredictable, wild predators. Persons who display such animals in out-of-control settings should, in my view, be held strictly liable for any damage resulting from such display," the Superior Court judge said.

The judge accepted the couple's testimony that their vehicle's automatic windows were closed prior to the attack and were likely lowered inadvertently by Mr. Balac after a tiger butted against the car.

Neither Mr. Balac nor Ms. Cowles could be reached for comment last night, but lawyer John Soule, who acted on behalf of Mr. Balac's insurance company, said he suspects the decision will force changes to such theme parks.

"I think the ruling will have an effect upon the way any animal farm now does business in the future," he said. "There are other similar farms in North America and Europe; I suspect that, if the decision stands, that type of business will have to reconsider how they deal with the public and their product."

The trial that began in early November of last year heard that the 1996 incident caused Mr. Balac, who had been an accomplished accordion player and an outgoing Sheridan College student, to turn into an unemployable recluse.

The disfiguring scars and anxiety Ms. Cowles suffered as a result of the attack almost ended her career as an exotic dancer, court heard.

But the single mother of two boys did manage to get a job at a Mississauga strip club that allowed her to perform wearing a hat and a skirt.

After the attack, she changed her stage name to Dominique and performed with an S&M theme, wearing black clothing and using whips and chains as props.

But the court was told that because of the scars, it became increasingly difficult for her to earn enough money as an exotic dancer.

Mr. Balac and Ms. Cowles had sued the popular tourist attraction for $3.2-million for injuries they suffered in the attack when a 113-kilogram Bengal tiger named Paka reached into the passenger window of the couple's car and bit down on Mr. Balac's right arm, destroying muscles, tendons and nerves.

The tiger also attacked Ms. Cowles, who was pregnant at the time, biting her on the hip and scalp and nearly dragging her out of the passenger window.

Two other tigers tried to climb in through the driver's window as the couple struggled to get out of the attacking animal's clutches.

One of the tigers managed to bite down on Mr. Balac's left arm.

A lawyer for African Lion Safari Game Farm said yesterday his client was "very disappointed" with the decision.

Martin Smith said he was awaiting instructions from the game park on whether to appeal the decision and declined further comment.

Court heard expert testimony that Mr. Balac is disfigured and scarred, both physically and emotionally.

Besides being in constant pain and unable to work, he suffers from depression and memory loss.

During the trial, pictures taken of Paka with a disposable camera, one minute before the tiger attacked Ms. Cowles, were released.

The photo showed the tiger sitting on scrub brush in a fenced area staring intently at the camera with narrowed eyes.

One of the issues disputed during the trial by the lawyer for the African Lion Safari, was whether the pair had their car windows rolled down as they toured the park.

Ms. Cowles testified that she couldn't recall whether the windows were up or down, but added that Mr. Balac must have accidentally hit the power window button with his foot when she "jumped" to his side of the car after being startled by the tiger as it jumped toward the car.
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