KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — An East Tennessee 18-year-old recalled the moment a tiger bit down on her arm. With her arm in a sling and covered in bandages, she pointed to the marks and stitches left showing on her shoulder.
“Where he had like dug his teeth in it and was like pulling me,” Somer Stevens said. “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, 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 use a tourniquet to try to stop the bleeding from her arm.
In a 911 call from the sanctuary, an employee told the dispatcher, “someone got grabbed by one of the tigers.”
She has been through five surgeries with skin grafts from her back and leg. Like any young woman would be, Stevens says she’s worried about how it will look once it heals. The scars are a reminder of the moment, she said, 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. It really felt like we know that you might lose your arm, that’s OK, I’m here for you,” she said.
That answer was yes, but questions remain about how the attack happened.
Body camera from two officers who responded to the incident shows employees at the sanctuary believed Stevens had tried to pet the tiger through the fence when she was bitten.
A woman who identified herself as 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,” the founder 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 she had intentionally stuck her hand through the fence.
That’s why Stevens decided to do this interview.
“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, Eeyore, water. She said this was part of her usual responsibility list around the sanctuary.
“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 prior to 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. Stevens doesn’t blame the tiger and would like to work with large cats again should she get the opportunity.
Multiple attempts to contact the sanctuary were unsuccessful. No statement had been issued. 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 GMA.
After the attack, Stevens was taken to UT Medical Center. Her ring finger is covered in bandages and wedding planning has been put on hold.
“I’ve been doing a lot of (doctor) appointment planning. That’s all I’ve had time for,” Stevens laughed.
While Stevens comes to terms with how her arm may look in a wedding dress, she hoped others would see her side of the story.
“I want it on the right finger so bad,” she said of her engagement ring.
TWRA officials said the case is closed. WATE 6 On Your Side requested a copy of that report. It is expected to be delivered by Saturday.
There are more than 260 big cats at Tiger Haven. A GoFundMe had been set up for Stevens and her fiancé.