Tiger tales - Page 6

I grew up with tigers. I built tiger pens. And the tiger grotto at the privatized San Francisco Zoo was a disaster waiting to happen
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Photo by Charles Russo

Tatiana most likely fought off the threat from Sousa, slashing his throat in the process, then tracked her wounded prey to finish what she started. It wasn't a rampage, a vicious and angry outburst, as media reports have described it, just the methodical, instinctive actions of a top-of-the-line predator.

THE BIPED PROBLEM

If you look at what led up to Tatiana's escape, you follow a trail of denial and avoidance.

Consider the players, starting with Zoo management and keepers.

Zoo staffers have known for almost a half century that a tiger could jump out of that grotto. Carey Baldwin, then the Zoo director, witnessed the escape with Rentz in 1959. His solution, according to Rentz's blog, was to post instructions to keep the offending tiger indoors. Castor's solution to Jack's escape was to fill the moat with water, according to Alcaraz, but that practice ended after Jack died. Neither solution was permanent or designed to deal with the next strong-legged, strong-willed tiger to come along.

When Roth-Cramer witnessed the near escape, a passing keeper apparently laughed it off. She reportedly wrote a letter to then–Zoo director David Anderson, but there is no evidence her letter produced any response.

As far as we can tell, no one ever tried to convince the AZA or federal regulators that they needed tougher standards or tougher enforcement. No one took the story to the press or published a journal article to warn other Zoo professionals. No one posted public warnings, ordered changes to the grotto, banned tigers from the exhibit, or shut the lion house.

Mollinedo should have known about the problem if his keepers knew. But there seems to be a lot he doesn't know, and previous Guardian reports and a recent Chronicle article suggest communication has broken down between employees, particularly keepers, and Zoo management. Lower-level staff complain of not being heard, not being consulted. Morale is low. Institutional knowledge is being lost as keepers quit in frustration.

And what about the regulators? Ron Tilson, the conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo, said in a Dec. 27 Chronicle story that the AZA standard, which he said was seven meters (closer to 23 feet), is "very conservative." Yet this has less than a 20 percent safety margin when you consider the conventional wisdom about how far a tiger can jump, and it is far less than reported leaps of 30 feet or more.

The day after the attack, the AZA issued a statement that "AZA accreditation standards contain no specific dimensions for big cat enclosures." The AZA did not return calls seeking comment, but what it provides is really a set of guidelines produced by advisory committees for a voluntary association composed of the very institutions being regulated. The guidelines aren't consistently known and have never been fully implemented.

We know the AZA accredited the San Francisco Zoo despite a wall almost four feet shorter than the recommended height.

In 1974 the Philadelphia Zoo surveyed 10 other zoos about their tiger moats. It published the findings in the 1976 International Zoo Yearbook. San Francisco reported its moat was 13.5 feet deep. Detroit said its moat was 15.5 feet deep. Chicago's moat was only 21 feet wide, and Tulsa reported between 15 and 20 feet. Oklahoma's moat was only 17 feet wide. Half of the surveyed zoos couldn't meet AZA recommendations.

There are signs the San Francisco Zoo did not meet other AZA standards. For example, the AZA's 2008 Accreditation Standards and Related Policies states, "A written protocol should be developed involving local police or other emergency agencies." On Jan. 3, I e-mailed 20 questions to the Zoo's public relations firm, many of which related to AZA standards. For example, I asked about the last emergency drill and about gun training. I also asked for copies of related Zoo policies. The Zoo never responded.