Tiger eats retired zookeeper in northern Italy (wiki commons)

A retired Italian zookeeper has been dismembered and eaten by three tigers while trying to feed the animals chicken meatballs.

Mauro Lagiard, who lived with his wife in a camper van on the outskirts of Turin, northern Italy, died after the male tiger Samir began mauling him.

The 72-year-old was dragged 100ft into a clearing where two other tigers began feasting on Lagiard. Five cubs watched from the sidelines.

His wife Carla, 73, watched helplessly as her husband died. His dismembered body was found next to the tigers' water trough later - it took paramedics half an hour to reach Lagiard.

The couple had lived on the Martinant Oasis animal sanctuary for a number of years. They had originally kept tigers and leopards at their villa but when neighbours complained about the animals, they moved to the sanctuary.

They continued to care for the animals after the sanctuary shut down in 2010.

Local media reports suggest Lagiard loved Samir the most out of all the tigers, even though he had attacked the pensioner before - he was hospitalised for eight months last year after being attacked.

Lagiard had blamed himself for being mauled, saying he was wearing aftershave and the smell had confused the animal.

No fear

His wife, however, said the male tiger had disliked her husband. She said: "My husband and Samir did not get on. If I had gone it would never have happened."

The couple was taken in by George Martinat, who told la Stampa: "They said that the animals were their lives. Even though they were elderly and physically debilitated, I did not want to be responsible for separating them from their animals."

Speaking to Italian newspaper la Repubblica, he added: "[Lagiard] never took any precautions. He went in, he gave them their food and he left. He had no fear, even though in the past he had been attacked by the same tigers."

Neighbours said the tigers attacked Lagiard because the animals underfed. They said the animals appeared malnourished and aggressive, being fed just twice per week.

The five cubs, born a few months ago, meant the couple had ten tigers and one leopard to feed.

All the big cats are being cared for by vets while their fate is decided, although it is believed Samir will be put down.