By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - A tiger kept at an Indiana sanctuary for abused and neglected felines mauled a caretaker who was cleaning the animal's pen on Friday, gripping the woman's head in its mouth at one point in an attack that left the victim in critical condition, authorities said.
Co-workers at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center broke off the attack by the 18-year-old tiger by spraying the animal in the face with water, then luring it away from the woman with food, the Clay County Sheriff's Department said in a statement.
The caretaker, Marrisa Dub, 21, was flown by helicopter to Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis, 65 miles southwest of the sanctuary, authorities said.
A fellow worker was alerted to the midday attack by Dub's screams and ran to the tiger's cage to find the tiger grasping Dub by her head with its jaws, facility director Joe Taft told investigators.
It was then that the tiger, named Raja, was doused with water and lured away to allow Dub to be rescued from the pen. The tiger, whose gender and size were not disclosed, was unhurt in the incident, the sheriff said.
Investigators said the door that separates the holding cage, where the tiger is kept during cleaning and maintenance, and its main habitat enclosure had not been closed while Dub was inside.
Officials at the sanctuary declined to comment on the incident, which was under investigation by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The center, which opened in 1991, is home to more than 230 exotic felines that have been abused or neglected, according to its website. The facility was open for tours, but no visitors witnessed the incident, authorities said .
The attack in Indiana came three months after a 24-year-old wildlife sanctuary worker in California was killed by an African lion that had slipped out of its holding pen while the employee was cleaning its enclosure.
(Reporting and writing by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)