Janet Coghlan was twelve years old when she was mauled by a tiger at her local zoo. Despite life threatening injuries, she now campaigns for the Born Free Foundation to save them says Britt Ashley
Janet Coghlan still thinks about the attack every day. Sometimes, she has nightmares.
Exactly 40 years ago, when she was just 12, Janet was pounced upon by an escaped tiger while volunteering at her local zoo.
‘I remember being sure I wouldn’t live,’ she says. ‘You cannot believe how powerful a tiger is. You can’t believe how hard they hit you.’
In the ensuing horror, she was mauled so viciously her face and upper body remain scarred even today. One eye was partially gorged out, while her cheek and mouth were left hanging from her face by a single shred of skin. She needed 250 stitches and reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.
Yet, today, Janet, a caterer and chocolatier from County Durham in the UK, refuses to hold a grudge.
Astonishingly, the attack has created in her an endearing love for tigers and she has spent much of her adult life campaigning to protect big cats in the wild.
One business venture she set up saw her produce a high-end confectionary line appropriately named, Tiger J. With every box sold she donated 25p to the Born Free Foundation wildlife charity.
‘It was limited-edition but it was popular,’ says Janet, who also runs Coghlan’s Cookery School with husband Andrew. ‘It’s something I’ll look to do again in the future.’
For now, she dedicates her free time drawing on her own experience to raise awareness of the Born Free Foundation’s ethos and work.
‘I’m as passionate about animals today as I was as a little girl helping out at that zoo,’ the 51-year-old says. ‘But now I believe the best way to show that passion is by campaigning and donating to protect animals in their natural environment, stop their suffering and improve conservation. Tigers are fascinating and beautiful but they are best in the wild where they can roam and live longer, healthier and happier lives.’
But, the attack itself, even four decades on, remains imprinted on Janet’s memory.
It was school summer holidays and she was helping out at the now closed Seaburn Zoo, near Sunderland, in the north east of England.
‘I loved it at the time,’ she remembers. ‘There was everything from bears, monkeys and lions to goats and dogs. I would go every day and do odd jobs: taking money, chopping fruit, sweeping up, helping visitors, that kind of thing. But, looking back, it was grim. The animals were kept in Victorian conditions.’
The facility had previously been an ocean park and the big cats were kept in a former swimming pool and railway carriage. The tiger which would eventually attack – a beautiful Bengali called Meena – barely had enough room to properly stretch her legs.
‘She would pace up and down all day,’ says Janet. ‘It’s no wonder she pounced at the first opportunity.’
That day, the zoo owner’s wife was exercising the animal on a leash. Technically, at 10-months-old, Meena was still a cub. But she was already larger than a Great Dane and weighed in at around 14 stone.
‘It sounds extraordinary in this day and age but they asked me to hold a gate while she was walked through on a chain,’ says Janet, who suffered anxiety and depression in her 20s as a result of the incident.
‘They used to say she was gentle as a lamb – I remember that exact phrase – so I suppose they thought it was safe enough.’
But it wasn’t.
‘The moment I opened the gate, she broke free and just streaked towards me,’ remembers Janet.
‘Her movement was so quick; I still find it astonishing now. She rose up on her legs and hit me like a bus full in the chest, and was on top of me, claws scraping at my face and neck and arms.
‘Everything was a blur but I was wearing a new top and I vividly remember thinking my mum would kill me for getting blood on it. There was no pain, really. The adrenalin rushes through you. I was screaming and trying to fight her off but these are natural born killers. With every movement I made, I just got more trapped underneath. It must have only lasted a couple of minutes but I remember thinking I wasn’t going to get away. I felt certain I was being killed.’
At some point, somehow, the owner and his wife managed to distract the animal and, for a brief moment, the pressure on Janet lifted. ‘I managed to roll away,’ she says. ‘I doubt I’ve ever moved so fast in my life. I ran to a nearby building, crying, soaked in blood. There wasn’t an inch of my clothing that wasn’t red.’
‘I managed to roll away,’ she says. ‘I doubt I’ve ever moved so fast in my life. I ran to a nearby building, crying, soaked in blood. There wasn’t an inch of my clothing that wasn’t red.’
The youngster spent a week in hospital. Doctors said she was lucky to be alive. National newspapers all covered the incident. In one report, zoo owner Martin Lacey insisted Meena was just being ‘playful’ – something Janet actually agreed with then and still does now. From her hospital bed, she pleaded that the animal should not be put down, but to no avail. The tiger was destroyed shortly afterwards.
‘That was one of the things that hurt most,’ she says. ‘Maybe, in a way, I’ve been trying to atone ever since. It felt so pointless and so unnecessary. All she was doing was what came instinctively to her.’
Which may also explain why Janet has supported the Born Free Foundation since it was founded by actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in 1984.
‘Thousands of tigers have been lost down the years because their habitats have been destroyed or they’ve been killed for their meat or skin,’ she says. ‘Born Free works tirelessly to stop that happening as well as improving welfare, campaigning to give animals a voice, rescuing those in vulnerable habitats and educating local populations about the best way to live side-by-side with these creatures. It is invaluable work and I’m so glad I can support it.’
To know more about the Born Free Foundation, visit their website here