Tigers Gone Wild

I’ve been watching the tragic case of the tiger attack at the SF zoo on Christmas day with a lot of interest. My son loves the zoo and in particular the big cats. Having said that I don’t think we’ll ever go back to this zoo unless the director is replaced, the exhibits meet minimum national standards, they demonstrate renewed interest in better emergency planning, and lastly, they make an apology to the victim’s family.

Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo, equally tight-lipped at the briefing, announced that the zoo will reopen Thursday. “That will allow us to get everything back in order” so the zoo can once again “provide a wonderful experience” for visitors, he said. [From Police, fire logs in S.F. tiger mauling show scene of chaos, delay]

There’s a lot of blame to go around, but zoo director Mollinedo is living in a fantasy world if he thinks that that opening the zoo is going to get everything back to normal. My first thought after reading this quote was “dude, you just had 3 people attacked, 1 fatally, by a TIGER… getting everything back in order is the least of your worries”. To his comment about “a wonderful experience”, my snarky side came out as I thought “gee, you mean the not-getting-eaten-by-a-TIGER kind of experience?”.

The family of the young man who was killed by this tiger has demonstrated grace and dignity in the face of the ultimate tragedy that parents can face. This is all the more notable considering the zoo’s leadership first suggested the tiger could not have escaped on it’s own because the surrounding the enclosure was 18 feet tall, which we now know it was not, then later suggesting the tiger was provoked by the victims, which we don’t know but should not matter under any circumstances because the enclosure should have been built to protect visitors under any circumstances.

If there is one certainty in all of this, it is that the zoo is ultimately responsible for the safety of visitors and that they had a sub-standard tiger enclosure, no security cameras, a security staff that was in disarray, poor communications, and lastly, seemed more interested in securing the tiger than preventing additional fatalities.

At this point, given the facts that have emerged, it is clear that the victim’s family has a winnable legal case, which is little consolation for losing a son but the only recourse they have available to them. The zoo should cut through the bullshit and just come out and say they are sorry for what happened, what they will be doing to make sure this never happens again, and then come to a quick financial settlement with the family.

After what happened last year with this same tiger, elephant deaths and many other issues, this zoo’s credibility is shot (no pun intended). Now is not the time for incremental measures, at least not if they have any hope of getting families, like my own, to come back.

From Mollinedo’s statements it does not appear that he grasps the gravity of what has happened and that institutions such as the zoo are dependent on a broad base of public support not just for attendance but also for fundraising and necessary political support, but then again I would be very surprised if the SF Zoo does not end up with a new director before this latest episode fades from the news. Indeed, the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society has, at this point, an obligation to act.

Lastly, and it is lost in much of the coverage of this event, but the zoo also has an obligation, moral and legal, to ensure the safety of the tiger. The Siberian tiger is highly endangered, with more living in captivity than in the wild, it’s a tragedy that a young tiger such as this one had to be killed. I do not question the actions of the police, this animal had to be shot and killed in order to prevent additional human injury or death, but the zoo is ultimately responsible for allowing the conditions to exist that enabled the tiger to escape it’s enclosure, therefore the zoo is responsible for the death of the tiger as a result of the inadequacies of it’s enclosure.