Tiger attack, one year later: Zoo tries to reclaim mission while families still grieve
By Julia Prodis Sulek
Posted: 12/20/2008 05:04:00 PM PST
Tanya Peterson had been acting director of the San Francisco Zoo for little more than a month when she stood in the zoo’s Great Hall in August and addressed the employees who were still — she was surprised to find — traumatized by the Christmas Day tiger attack.
Not only were some dealing with nightmares and feelings of guilt and fear after the escaped tiger killed a San Jose teenager and wounded two of his friends, she said, but many were questioning whether the zoo still had a purpose. With attendance and donations plunging, plus pressure from a county supervisor to convert the facility into an animal rescue sanctuary, some worried the zoo might not survive. Even the birth of three tiger cubs in the spring didn’t pull the staff out of its funk.
Peterson made a plea:
“No one is going to rescue us,” she remembers telling the assembled group of about 130 employees in the lodge-like Great Hall, with its towering stone fireplace. “We have to defend our zoo.”
Now, a year after the tiger attack devastated one institution and two families, the institution is healing. The families are not.
After Peterson’s rallying cry that day, and an animal keepers’ showdown at City Hall a few weeks later, the zoo and its employees began to turn the corner on the most shocking and horrific event in its 78-year history.
But the plight of the tiger’s victims and their families has only worsened. The attack focused worldwide attention on the young men, two of whom had criminal histories, leading many to suspect they must have taunted the tiger. Their legal troubles since then, which were unrelated to the attack, didn’t earn them any sympathy.
Paul Dhaliwal, 20, is serving a 16-month prison sentence at San Quentin after violating parole last summer by driving recklessly. He also received five years’ probation last week for shoplifting at a San Leandro Target store in March. His 24-year-old brother, Kulbir, is serving an “alternative work” sentence after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and public drunkenness.
The parents of Carlos Sousa Jr., who was killed, are in grief counseling. His mother, Marilza Sousa, says that since her son’s 18th birthday in September, she has been crying so hard at night that she can’t work during the day. She and her ex-husband, Carlos Sr., from whom she was separated at the time of the tragedy, considered visiting the zoo for the first time this month but decided they couldn’t.
“I don’t want to go to where he was mutilated,” Carlos said. “I’d rather go to the cemetery where he’s resting and say some prayers and put some flowers in a vase and sit there and talk to him in my mind.”
Not open Christmas
For the first time ever, the zoo — at the urging of the employees — will be closed Christmas Day. Blame and guilt are subjects neither zoo officials nor family members will talk about since the Dhaliwals and the Sousas have filed lawsuits against the zoo. But there’s no denying that the past year has been a tumultuous one.
The zoo was on lockdown through New Year’s Day as investigators tried to figure out how and why the 250-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana scaled a concrete wall from the base of a dry moat, then leapt over bushes and a waist-high railing to attack the trio and kill Sousa.
As the Dhaliwal brothers ran down a paved pathway toward a concession building, the tiger pursued and attacked again. Police arrived and shot and killed Tatiana, a female intended to become an important breeder. Fourteen bullet casings were recovered from the asphalt.
Early investigations quickly concluded that the grotto wall didn’t meet industry height standards. “What was going on prior to the animal getting out is irrelevant,” said Bob Jenkins, the zoo’s vice president of government affairs. The tiger’s escape, he said, “should not have happened.”
The zoo quickly raised the grotto wall from the base of the moat to about knee height, then built a thick glass wall that reaches a shade trellis. Electrified fencing now circles the grotto. More security guards were added, as well as “red alert” buttons for animal keepers. Staff has been better trained to handle emergencies, and a new public warning system delivers emergency instructions in English, Spanish and Mandarin.
New signs have been erected around the exhibits, encouraging visitors to be respectful to the animals, and to remember they are instinctively wild. The signs include a phone number to call if anyone sees animal teasing or other misbehavior. So far, the hot line has received about two dozen calls — all, officials say, minor in nature.
By March, just after three Sumatran tiger cubs were born, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums released a report that said the zoo’s overall response to the Christmas Day attack was “impressive” but that it had been “too often chasing problems rather than proactively addressing known concerns.”
The director at the time, Manuel Mollinedo, reportedly was forced out by the board of trustees in June.
Peterson, vice chairwoman of the board and the mother of 5-year-old twins, took a leave of absence from her job as a lawyer at Hewlett-Packard and began serving as interim director.
“I had to assure myself and other parents this is a safe place,” Peterson said in an interview at the zoo last week. “This has to be safe for any visitor, of any background, of any age.”
She also needed to improve morale among employees and renew the mission of connecting visitors with wildlife.
All that seemed to be in jeopardy when she took over. Because of the fatality, she said, “it made us question our mission for a time. It made us second-guess ourselves.”
When San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, supported by animal rights groups, proposed legislation that would turn the zoo into an animal rescue facility, she said, “They saw an Achilles’ heel, a moment of vulnerability.”
At the same time, though, the political assault on the zoo brought what had been a “scattered group” together, said Roger Hoppes, who was in charge of the children’s zoo at the time of the attack and is now animal care curator.
Some 50 employees and volunteers crowded into a hearing room at San Francisco’s City Hall at the end of the summer and lined up with their notecards to give their speeches.
“We became embattled to some extent,” Hoppes said. “It did galvanize us because we felt threatened.”
Daly’s proposal ultimately failed.
Peterson then led a series of meetings in the Great Hall, asking employees to offer suggestions on how to improve the zoo for animals and visitors. Peterson’s style was a marked change, said Hoppes, from the previous “top-down” approach.
“Staff has become much more energized,” Hoppes said.
And board members themselves have spent weekends with staff cleaning up and repainting exhibits, he said.
The zoo still faces major challenges, including attracting donors, members and visitors during an economic recession. A master plan that would update aging exhibits must be implemented.
Peterson’s leave from Hewlett-Packard was supposed to be for three months, then six. But she soon realized that not only would it be difficult to recruit a new director at such a trying time, but she didn’t want the employees to face another dramatic change so quickly.
Earlier this month, she resigned from Hewlett-Packard.
“I will stay here,” she said, “as long as needed.”