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Incident at tiger show causes firestorm on social media; trainers deny tigers escaped

Posted at 7:02 PM, Feb 16, 2017
and last updated 2019-03-26 23:49:51-04

Did a tiger get loose at the Martin County Fair?

Some people who watched Wednesday night’s tiger show say 'yes' and shared their fear on Facebook. But the tiger’s trainer denies an animal ever got loose.

One thing both sides agree on, is that a tiger got spooked during last night’s performance by Nerger's Splendid Tigers. The show is run by Judit Nerger and her husband, Juergen, German natives who have worked with tigers for decades. They travel the country with 14 tigers, some of which they've worked with for nearly 15 years.

"Tigers are unpredictable, so anything can happen -- but we have never ever in 30 years, we had never had any of them loose, ever," said Judit.

But some people at show on Wednesday say otherwise, with countless complaints being called in to fair administrators, local authorities and even the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"Little did I know, that could've been the last time I saw my kid, whether the animal got out or the crowd trampled her," said fairgoer Michael Stillfried.

Stillfried used to work for a chimp sanctuary but says he took his children to the show to teach them a lesson.

"Trying to let people know that these kinds of animals don't need to be in cages. They're wild, there's no way to domesticate them," said Stillfried.

Opinions aside, Stillfried's wife says things took a turn during the show.

"The male trainer kept jabbing him in the throat with a stick, hitting him in the face," said Lauren Stillfried.

"You could tell he was obviously in distress, he was panting," added Michael.

The family said they believe the animal became agitated by the male trainer poking and prodding at the tigers, but Nerger claims it was a light fixture blowing in Wednesday night's strong winds that scared the animal.

"The tiger got scared because the tent is moving up and down," she said. "When the tiger is scared he just runs around. So when it happened people were saying there was a tiger loose, it was a lie. A complete lie. The tiger was never out, nobody ever was in danger."

Either way, the animal was spooked. Nerger said the tiger could no longer be controlled to continue the show, so they had to call all the big cats back into their cages. The tigers access the cages behind the staging area through a steel tunnel that runs out the back of the arena.

"It took a little while to get things in order because he was so nervous," said Judit.

During this time, details differ. Witnesses say the steel connector tunnel became dislodged while the cats were going back into the cages, providing an opportunity for one of tigers.

"And you heard two tigers attack loudly and at that point, she tried separating them. And one of the white tigers got out," recounts Lauren. "Everybody started screaming.. 'tiger loose tiger loose,' and the crowd started stampeding. Kids were getting knocked over."

Michael said he was scared for his family.

"I had to run back toward the tigers to make sure my oldest daughter wasn't in the crowd, and I was worried that she was going to get hurt. I didn't know what to do," he said.

Lauren said there was only a three foot fence separating the animal from the crowd.

"One man locked 20 people here didn't even know into a horse trailer at that moment, because everyone was running and screaming in fear," she said. "It was not thought out, it was not planned well, it could've been avoided."

Nerger said everything was happening so fast as she tried to get the animals in place, but maintains tiger never escaped the enclosure.

"I didn't see anything, I didn't hear anything because we were so focused to make sure all the tigers were going back home safe," she said. "It's not fair if people are telling lies like that. It's absolutely unfair and we are really upset about it because it's not true at all."

The tiger arena is made up of a 14-foot steel cage with a lock system in the back for tigers to walk back to their cages.

"There is no concerns about safety actually because the tiger never gets out. And if people were frightened last night, I'm sorry. But at anytime at this point last night, nobody was ever in danger," said Judit.

The tigers jump, roll over and perform other stunts with commands, which some audience members said was hard to watch.

"He was poking the tigers in the face with the same stick that he was feeding animals with, so right there you're teaching the animal 'I'm going to feed you, but now I'm going to stab you with the stick that I fed you with," said Michael Stillfried, who used to work for a chimp sanctuary. "I'm not for these kind of animals being kept in captivity, I didn't know they were going to be at the fair, had I known I wouldn't have gone."

When asked about allegations of hitting or being too rough with the tigers, Judit said they do not abuse the animals, adding that the rods and whips they use are to get the animals attention to communicate trained commands.

"All you do is you try to get his attention," she said.

Jay Spicer, a manager with the Martin County Fair says the allegations surrounding the tiger show are untrue and that there was no major commotion during the incident Wednesday night. A Martin County Sheriff's deputy also told WPTV that he witnessed the incident Wednesday night and never saw the tiger out of the enclosure.

"The fair always makes safety first," said Spicer, adding that all animals are inspected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. "Fair events are too large to not be made safe and secure."

At the end of the day, witnesses hope something can be done to help families feel safe.

"You do not enter the fair thinking that there will some kind of breach in safety with an animal that could hurt people," said Victoria Hart, another witness of Wednesday night's show.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking into the matter. They issued the following statement:

Nergers Tigers is licensed by the FWC for Class I wildlife and their last inspection found no violations. The inspection of the facility included all animal enclosures.The FWC is one of the regulatory agencies that monitor captive wildlife facilities in Florida. FWC captive wildlife personnel are looking into the reports.

FWC stressed that Florida’s captive wildlife regulations are among the most stringent in the nation.

The tiger show will still go on as planned through the rest of the fair, but we're told the tiger who caused the uproar last week will be out of commission and monitored for the next few days.

There is also a protest planned to take place at the fair on Saturday at 1 p.m.

To see what Florida’s captive wildlife license requirements are, click here.

To look at a map showing all captive wildlife license holders in Florida, click here.