KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — An 18-year-old former animal sanctuary employee recalled the moment a tiger bit down on her arm in a recent attack.
“He had dug his teeth in it and was like pulling me,” Somer Stevens said, pointing to the marks and stitches left showing on her shoulder. “There’s a lot of the staples go down all the way to the skin graft.”
Stevens was bitten on Jan. 25 at Tiger Haven animal sanctuary, according to the Roane County Sheriff’s Office. Body camera footage shows the aftermath of the attack. Stevens can be seen on the ground while her coworkers used a tourniquet to try to stop her arm from bleeding.
In a 911 call from the sanctuary, an employee told the dispatcher, “Someone got grabbed by one of the tigers.”
Stevens has been through five surgeries with skin grafts from her back and leg. She now has her arm in a sling and is covered in bandages. She says she’s worried about how it will look once it heals.
But, she said, the scars are a reminder of the moment her fiancé saved her life.
“He picked up a piece of bamboo off the ground and put it through the fence and into the tiger’s throat, which made him gag, which made him let go of me,” Stevens explained.
From distracting a tiger to distracting his girlfriend from pain, just 24 hours later, he proposed in the hospital.
“It was really, really sweet,” Stevens said. “It really felt like, ‘We know that you might lose your arm. That’s OK. I’m here for you.'”
Questions remain about how the attack happened.
Body camera video from two officers who responded to the incident shows employees at the sanctuary thought Stevens had tried to pet the tiger through the fence when she was bitten.
Mary Lynn Haven, the founder of the nonprofit sanctuary, said Stevens and her fiancé had helped bottle-feed the tiger, Eeyore, as a baby.
“A little too comfortable,” Haven said to the officer. “He’s a hand-raised cat. I’m not saying he’s tame, but he’s friendly.”
Another employee can be heard explaining there was meat on the side of the fence that would indicate Stevens had intentionally stuck her hand through the fence.
Stevens refutes that account.
“I just want to make it very clear that that’s not the case, and I wanted to let everybody know what the real story was,” Stevens said.
Stevens explained she had gone to give the tiger water, a task that she said was one of her usual responsibilities around Tiger Haven, which has more than 260 big cats.
“As I was walking down the hill in rainy conditions, I just slipped and fell forward, and I just fell straight into the fence and the tiger grabbed my hand and just yanked my arm,” Stevens said.
Stevens and her fiancé live on the property. Her fiancé had been working at the sanctuary longer, but Stevens had begun tending to the animals about two months before the incident.
“After seeing how much my fiancé enjoyed it and after living on the property for about five months, I just decided that, I’m here, he’s out there working. I could be out there with him with the cats taking care of them,” she said.
Stevens said neither she nor her fiancé work at the sanctuary anymore. She doesn’t blame the tiger and says she would like to work with large cats again should she get the opportunity.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials said the case is closed, and multiple attempts to contact the sanctuary were unsuccessful. No statement had been issued, and the attorney for Tiger Haven has not returned calls.
“What’s troubling to us is how Tiger Haven is painting it as if Somer caused these injuries herself, by trying to pet one of these tigers,” her attorney, Jedidiah McKeehan, said to Good Morning America.
Stevens, with her ring finger covered in bandages, has put wedding planning on hold.
“I’ve been doing a lot of (doctor) appointment planning. That’s all I’ve had time for,” Stevens laughed.
Stevens is trying to come to terms with how her arm may look in a wedding dress. “I want it on the right finger so bad,” she said of her engagement ring.
A GoFundMe had been set up for Stevens and her fiancé.