Tiger Mauls San Antonio Zookeeper

A 28-year-old zookeeper who specializes in large cats had to be airlifted to a hospital for surgery after a tiger attacked him inside its cage Saturday at the San Antonio Zoo.

The zookeeper was in critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman told The Associated Press.

The tiger attacked the zookeeper, Jeff Tierney, around 2:30 p.m. in a non-public area, zoo spokeswoman Dawn Campos said. The zookeeper was expected to recover, she said.

"The tiger's just banging on the cage and the zookeepers are all gathered around the door, and couldn't get in there to get to the tiger," one witness said. "And they were yelling, 'Help me, help me, help me.'"

Witnesses said the man was bitten on the neck, his leg was shattered and he had bite marks on his face, arms and legs.

Though the public was never at risk, the incident may serve as an illustration how risky working with dangerous animals can be.

Last February, a zookeeper was attacked and killed by a jaguar after entering the big cats' cage at the Denver Zoo.

"This is an extremely unusual incident. You can tell we're all pretty upset about this," a zoo official said at the time.

Last year, a horrified audience at San Diego's Sea World watched a killer whale as it pinned its trainer to the bottom of the pool.

Officials at the San Antonio Zoo have launched an investigation into Saturday's incident.

For those who came to see wildlife up close, it was a more realistic view of the animal kingdom than they expected.

"I really, you know, wanted to see the animals in the zoo," one visitor said. "But after this I'm ready to go."

The zoo was closed after the attack and was expected to reopen Sunday, according to The Associated Press.