Witness Says Boys Were Teasing Lions at SF Zoo

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Patricia Yollin, Tanya Schevitz,Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writers Thursday, January 3, 2008  (01-02) 22:15 PST San Francisco -- Two victims of a lethal Christmas Day tiger attack were harassing the big cats at the San Francisco Zoo shortly before a 350-pound feline escaped its enclosure and mauled them, a woman told The Chronicle on Wednesday.  The revelation comes as the zoo reopens Wednesday, nine days after a visitor was killed and two of his friends were injured by the Siberian tiger, later shot dead by police.  Jennifer Miller, who was at the zoo with her husband and two children that ill-fated Christmas afternoon, said she saw four young men at the big-cat grottos - and three of them were teasing the lions a short time before the tiger's bloody rampage that killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr.  "The boys, especially the older one, were roaring at them. He was taunting them," the San Francisco woman said. "They were trying to get that lion's attention. ... The lion was bristling, so I just said, 'Come on, let's get out of here' because my kids were disturbed by it."  She said Sousa - whom she later recognized from his photo in the newspaper - was not heckling. The Chronicle contacted Miller after learning that she and her family had seen the young men at the zoo Christmas Day.  Miller, who said she visits the zoo with her relatives every Christmas, said the young men stood out because she has seen mostly families there. Although authorities have said Sousa was accompanied only by San Jose brothers Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, Miller said four young men were together when she came across them.  Mark Geragos, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Dhaliwals, angrily denied that his clients teased the animals. He also accused the zoo administration and their newly hired crisis spokesman of "peddling unfounded rumors."  "It's unconscionable," he said. "They're doing nothing but a calculated attack on these victims ... when in actuality the zoo security didn't do what they should have been doing after the attack."  Geragos maintains that the brothers ran to the Terrace Cafe after Tatiana escaped and tried for more than 30 minutes to solicit help from zoo employees. He dismissed reports of the victims throwing rocks at the tiger as "just not true."  Miller called the behavior she witnessed by the victims "disturbing."  Her family was looking at the lions when the young men stopped beside them at the big-cat grottos - five outdoor exhibits attached to the Lion House. The young men started roaring at the lions and acting "boisterous" to get their attention, said Miller, who added that she watched the four for five minutes or so a little after 4 p.m.  "It was why we left," she said. "Their behavior was disturbing. They kept doing it."  Sousa refrained from such tactics, Miller said.  "He wasn't roaring. He wasn't taunting them," she recalled. "He kept looking at me apologetically like, 'I'm sorry, I know we are being stupid.' "  When a friend told Miller about the attacks - first reported to 911 dispatchers at 5:07 p.m. - she called police the day after Christmas to tell them what she had seen. She called back Wednesday because she was wondering why news accounts mentioned only three young men.  San Francisco police Inspector Valerie Matthews said investigators had talked to Miller on Wednesday but haven't been able to substantiate yet her account of a fourth person with the victims at the zoo. Authorities have been unable to corroborate reports that the victims taunted the tigers, she said.  "I don't know if what they did was any more than what kindergartners do at the zoo every day," Matthews said.  She said taunting an animal at the zoo is a misdemeanor.  Zoo officials declined Wednesday to specifically say that they suspected taunting in the escape of the tiger.  "Something prompted our tiger to leap over the exhibit," said Manuel Mollinedo, executive director of the zoo, in response to questions during a 13-minute press conference attended by at least 40 media representatives on Wednesday.  Mollinedo said new "Protect the Animals" signs would ask patrons to leave the animals alone, and portable loudspeakers would remind visitors to leave promptly at the 5 p.m. closing time. A hard-wired notification system is also in the offing to alert visitors to any escapes by the creatures that live there.  "Help make the zoo a safe environment," the signs state. "The magnificent animals in the zoo are wild and possess all their natural instincts. You are a guest in their home. Please remember they are sensitive and have feelings. PLEASE don't tap on glass, throw anything into exhibits, make excessive noise, tease or call out to them."  At the news conference, Zoological Society Chairman Nick Podell lavishly praised the beleaguered Mollinedo, who took over at the zoo in February 2004 and was earning $314,038 a year plus $15,702 in benefits and a $9,548 expense account, according to zoo tax documents filed in November. The society operates the zoo, although the land and animals are owned by the city.  Zoo officials said that over the next 30 days they will build a reinforced-glass barrier atop the tiger grotto's dry moat wall. On Tuesday the zoo said the glass wall would be 4 to 5 feet high, bringing the wall height to at least 16.5 feet tall, roughly what is suggested by national standards. However, on Wednesday the zoo said the wall would be at least 19 feet tall and feature viewing holes.  In the days after the fatal mauling, zoo officials gave five different estimates of the moat wall's height before finally conceding the wall was only 12.5 feet tall - 4 feet shorter than national recommendations.  "It will put us in the top end of the spectrum for containment facilities," Mollinedo said.  He remained vague on several other issues. Although he said 20 patrons were at the zoo when the attack occurred, he didn't know how many staff people or security officers were present. He said there will be more employees on duty in the future, although he wasn't sure when that staffing increase would happen. And he didn't know how much the proposed improvements would cost or where the money would come from.  "I'll have to get back to you on that," Mollinedo said more than once.  Mollinedo said his staff acted heroically after the attacks, although he couldn't describe any specific instances. However, zoo employees have told The Chronicle that they were among the first on the scene and led paramedics to Sousa's body while the tiger was still roaming the grounds.  When the zoo reopens, the big cats will be inside the Lion House, which will be closed to the public. Screened fences and barriers will surround the outdoor grotto and Terrace Cafe, sites of the attacks.  Patrons will be able to leave mementos and tributes at the main entrance to both Sousa and the 4-year-old Tatiana, who had mangled her keeper's arm a year earlier.  Also Wednesday, San Francisco police Sgt. Steve Mannina said investigators found an empty vodka bottle in the car that was used by the victims to go to the zoo on Christmas Day. Inspectors haven't concluded the significance of the find, he added.  Mannina also said results of toxicological tests performed on Sousa, who was killed by the tiger, have not been returned yet.   Watch a video on the zoo's plans to upgrade security at the big cat enclosures at sfgate.com.  Zoo reopening today  What's happening: The San Francisco Zoo reopens today for the first time since the fatal Christmas Day tiger attack.  What to expect: New signs (see below) that forbid animal harassment and loudspeakers that will alert visitors to the park's closing time. The Lion House and big cat exhibit will be closed to the public, as will the Terrace Cafe.  Details: More information on A10   Chronicle staff writers Jaxon Van Derbeken and Steve Rubenstein contributed to this report. E-mail the writers at kfagan@sfchronicle.com, srubenstein@sfchronicle.com, tschevitz@sfchronicle.com and pyollin@sfchronicle.com.  This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi? f=/c/a/2008/01/03/MN9TU8AGC.DTL&tsp=1

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