Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tiger, Tatiana, Burning Bright...

Fatalities at SF Zoo spark outrage,
but PR spin contains firestorm of controversy

It's been almost a month since the Christmas Day tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo where two victims lost their lives in a flurry of teeth, claws, and gunfire. In the aftermath of the mauling of 17-year-old Carlos Sousa, Jr., and the subsequent shooting of 4-year-old Siberian tiger Tatiana, many people wondered incredulously, how could the 350-pound carnivorous cat have escaped from her enclosure at a supposedly state-of-the-art zoo in a major American city?

While some still seek answers to this question and are demanding accountability, most now seem to be far more obsessed with a related but very different question—that is, whether Sousa and/or his two young companions provoked the attack by taunting Tatiana.

According to a January 19th San Francisco Chronicle poll, 82% of readers think the mauled Dhaliwal brothers are mostly to blame for the attack, while only 13% said the zoo was primarily responsible (and 5% said they were equally culpable). This gaping disparity seems especially odd since, on the same day, the Chronicle featured an article on the same webpage as the poll reporting that police have failed to turn up any evidence that Sousa or the Dhaliwals taunted Tatiana, and that the official investigation would probably soon be reclassified as "inactive."

In the exorbitant amount of attention paid to the Dhaliwal brothers' role in the attack, a very basic fact has been lost, which is that a tiger should not be able to escape from a zoo exhibit, no matter how much she is provoked. Even if Sousa and/or the Dhaliwals taunted Tatiana, that does not in any way absolve the zoo for putting a tiger in an exhibit that was not secure for either her or the public. Unfortunately, the focus on the relatively irrelevant question of the victims' innocence or guilt has effectively distracted the public from the SF Zoo's utter failure to protect its visitors and the animals under its care from danger and harm.

The Tatiana tragedy is just one in a long line of controversial animal deaths that have plagued the SF Zoo since Manuel Mollinedo took over as director in 2004. These include two dead elands, a hippopotamus, a zebra, two black swans, and a dozen penguins. The SF Zoo management's failure to improve the inhumane conditions in which elephants were forced to live for decades also caused the deaths of three resident pachyderms within a year. Soon after the tiger mauling, a polar bear and a leopard nearly escaped as well, and it was discovered that the wall around the polar bear exhibit also falls short of the minimal safety standards recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), just as the zoo's tiger enclosure did—by four feet.

The SF Zoo also ignored AZA recommendations for 24-hour monitoring of animals, so no zookeepers or security guards were posted at the tiger enclosure at the time of the Christmas Day mauling, and no observation cameras recorded the event. As Sousa lay dying and the Dhaliwals ran for their lives, the zoo failed to follow its own emergency protocols, delaying police response to the crisis and neglecting to notify visitors that a dangerous wild animal was on the loose. And soon after the attack, it was revealed that many zookeepers knew and reported that it was possible for the tigers to break out of their enclosure, but that zoo officials ignored their warnings and made no structural modifications to ensure the safety of visitors and animals.

Clearly, these and other abysmal failings indicate a critical need for fundamental changes at the zoo. Yet rather than responsibly addressing these problems head-on, zoo officials instead hired Sam "The Fixer" Singer, a high-profile public relations consultant whose renowned "crisis management" skills are much in demand these days. Sure enough, Singer did an utterly brilliant job of damage control for the zoo by spinning the story towards blaming the victims, effectively shifting the media and public opinion away from criticism of the zoo, despite their chronic and dangerous incompetence.

Perhaps as a result of Singer's success, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a series of public hearings on the zoo to be hosted by the Recreation and Parks Department Commission. This is the very same body responsible for the oversight failures that allowed Tatiana to escape in the first place, and whose members were appointed by Mayor Newsom. City officials appear to be holding the hearings to bolster the arrangement with the San Francisco Zoological Society, the non-profit responsible for daily operation of the zoo.

In Defense of Animals (IDA) charged that these hearings are an attempt to whitewash the tragic incident and the ongoing management and oversight blunders at the zoo. We therefore demanded fair and independent hearings by the SF Board of Supervisors, and the termination of Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo. IDA has encouraged the city to hire a replacement who has a background in and commitment to animal welfare, and who will work towards making the SF Zoo a refuge for animals in need of rescue (instead of merely a money-managed menagerie).

In the wake of the first hearing, San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd called for a hearing before the full Board of Supervisors. In addition, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced a resolution calling for the city to re-evaluate its contract with the SF Zoological Society to manage the zoo. Meanwhile, an investigation of all SF Zoo exhibits to assess their safety is still underway.

IDA applauds the efforts of Supervisors Elsbernd and Mirkarimi, as well as others who are trying to ensure that the real problems at the SF Zoo get addressed and resolved. We will continue to work toward holding those responsible for management of SF Zoo accountable to the public and the animals until justice is served.

San Francisco residents: Ask the SF Board of Supervisors to hold hearings to carefully evaluate the purpose and practices of the SF Zoo with the aim of improving the lives of animals on exhibit there.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 244
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tel: (415) 554-5184
Email: board.of.supervisors@sfgov.org