Tiger tales - Page 7

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
Photo by Charles Russo

But the next day Mollinedo announced that the Zoo is working with police at Taraval Station on a coordinated emergency response and that police and Zoo shooters will be training together.

The United States Department of Agriculture regulates zoos as exhibitors under the Animal Welfare Act. That act and the rules written to implement it are primarily meant to ensure healthy conditions for the animals. They contain specifications for the size of the fences around the outside of a zoo facility to keep unauthorized people out, not for the fences separating the animals from visitors.

And local oversight? The city owns the grounds and the animals. Zoo employees are part of the city employees union. But since 1993 the nonprofit San Francisco Zoological Society has owned the institution and operated it under a contract with the city. There were problems at the Zoo when the city ran it, but, as Sup. Tom Ammiano told me, "Nobody died."

The contract retains a role for the city through a Joint Zoo Committee of society board members and Recreation and Park Department commissioners. I have gone though the minutes of that committee going back several years, and I have to say the committee provides as much oversight as the stuffed animals in the Zoo's gift ship. As Ammiano put it, "It's all lip service."

The employee relations problems, the animal injuries and deaths (see Opinion, page 7), and other management issues at the Zoo are nothing new. Savannah Blackwell reported on these same sets of issues for the Guardian twice — see "The Zoo Blues" (5/19/99) and "The Zoo's Losers" (5/7/03) — and there is no indication anything has been done.

The city's contract with the Zoological Society and the Joint Zoo Committee should mean Zoo documents are public under the city's sunshine laws. But the Zoo has not been forthcoming with key documents requested by the media. Sup. Sean Elsbernd has called for hearings, and Ammiano said there will be multiple hearings. "I think the key issues are accountability and transparency," he said.

The Zoo's high-priced director has demonstrated that his knowledge of the animals under his care, the condition of his facilities, and the concerns of his staff are embarrassingly limited. In press conferences he looked befuddled, evaded questions, broke every rule of crisis communication, and speculated about the victims without clear information.

The Zoo hired Sam Singer, supposedly a crisis communication specialist, but I have attended multiple trainings in crisis communication, and I have to say he seems more like a fixer to me. And despite this, Mayor Gavin Newsom and the society's board publicly support Mollinedo.

Mollinedo and his PR people have tried to direct blame toward the victims. Perhaps they were drunk, stoned, rowdy, throwing things — but if Tatiana was killed for being a tiger, it could also be argued that Sousa was killed for being a young man.

There's a whole process of brain development that scientists are now beginning to understand. The maturation of brain cells through something called myelination starts from the back of the brain. The front of the brain, the seat of executive functions like judgment, matures last. Young people often don't make good decisions. Boys, in particular, take unnecessary risks.

In the public health world, we understand this and concentrate on policies that control risk and reduce harm. This doesn't mean we shouldn't hold the survivors accountable for anything they might have done, but it does mean the Zoo has no business shifting the blame.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with more avoidance than a tiger has stripes.

In the end, this was a human problem. People weren't doing their jobs. They had not taken action when it was clearly needed. And in the end, the only innocent creature in this drama was the one that had no choice other than to be what she was.