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S.F. Zoo faces cascading fallout over deadly tiger escape

Newly released 911 dispatches portray the chaotic scene. Handlers had hoped to use tranquilizers on Tatiana.

December 30, 2007|Jordan Robertson and Terence Chea | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The deadly tiger escape at the San Francisco Zoo could prove to be a costly blow to an institution that has come under fire repeatedly in the past few years over the deaths of two elephants and the mauling of a zookeeper.

The zoo could face heavy fines from regulators. It could be stripped of its exhibitor license. Its accreditation could be at risk. It could be hit with a huge lawsuit by the victims or their families. It could even face criminal charges, depending on what the investigation finds.

"All this legal action is likely to impact the financial viability of the zoo," said Rory Little, a professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law. "Whether the zoo can stay open is a big question."

The zoo has been closed since Christmas Day, when the 350-pound Siberian tiger escaped from its enclosure and killed a teenager and severely mauled two other visitors. It is becoming increasingly clear the tiger climbed over a wall that at 12 feet 5 inches was about 4 feet below the recommended minimum for U.S. zoos.

Zoo officials said Friday they planned to reopen Jan. 3.

The zoo will be required to issue a report about the attacks to the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums' accreditation commission, which will then decide whether to take any action.

San Francisco Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo said the association never noted any deficiencies with the wall around the tiger enclosure.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, also could impose penalties, including fines, or suspend or revoke the zoo's exhibitor license if it is found that the zoo violated federal regulations on animal enclosures, said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers.

Legal experts said lawsuits also were likely. Already, the zoo is facing a lawsuit by zookeeper Lori Komejan, who was attacked by the same tiger, Tatiana, last year as she fed it.

The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety found the zoo at fault for Komejan's injuries, saying officials knew the big-cat exhibit posed a hazard because the animals could reach under the cage bars. The agency fined the zoo $18,000 and ordered improvements.

Three years ago, two elephants died at the zoo, prompting it to remove its remaining elephants to a sanctuary. Animal activists complained about conditions at the zoo, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors forced the zoo to refurbish habitats for other animals.

Among the lawsuits the zoo could face would be those by the victims and their families, even if investigators find that Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, provoked the tiger or ignored warnings not to taunt the animals, Little said. Sousa was killed; the Dhaliwals were injured.

"Inevitably, there are going to be lawsuits filed," Little said. "Even if they provoked the tiger, a reasonable person would believe that the tiger could not escape. That's what you count on when you go to the zoo. You count on the idea that the animals cannot reach you."

It is also possible that the zoo could face criminal charges of negligent homicide if the investigation finds the zoo contributed to the death and injuries of the victims, he said.

The two survivors could be charged with a crime if they are found to have caused or contributed to Sousa's death, even unintentionally, he said.

Meanwhile, late Friday, police released a transcript of dispatch chatter from the attack, revealing that zoo employees at first responded with tranquilizers.

Police were called at 5:08 p.m. At 5:17 p.m., a dispatcher noted that zoo security was not letting officers in.

"Zoo personnel have the tiger in sight and are dealing with it," the transcript reads. "The [victim] is inside a cafe at the other side of the zoo."

By 5:20 p.m. the medics had located one victim. At 5:25 p.m., a dispatch went out that an officer had spotted the tiger. At 5:27 p.m., the officers began to fire.

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Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this report.

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