The questions the zoo won’t answer

Pub date January 9, 2008

Editors note: Craig McLaughlin sent the following questions to the office of the zoo’s hired flack, Sam Singer. We received no reply by press time.

I was raised around tigers. I know their habits and capabilities and was personally involved in constructing cages for them. I have been amazed by some of the comments attributed to Mr. Mollinedo in local news accounts. He initially reported that the wall of the moat was 20 ft high but the moat was 20 feet across. The difference between the elevations of the grotto and the viewing area is clearly, by any direct observation, only a few feet. That means that regardless of the depth of the dry moat, there is a question of whether the tiger could simply leap from bank to bank. Conventional wisdom in the tiger literature is that they can jump 20 feet, and there are accounts in the literature of leaps as long as 30 or even 33 feet. Given this, it makes no sense based on records available to Mr. Mollinedo that the grotto could be considered secure. In the end, we learned the moat’s width varied from 20 to 33 feet depending on how far one descended, but that the far wall was only 12.5 feet. Mr. Mollinedo then expressed surprise that a tiger could leap or climb over a wall of that height. Given my own knowledge of and direct observation of tigers, a tiger making that leap, even a captive tiger, is not surprising in the least, and taunting would not be a prerequisite. I would have to say that Mr. Mollinedo has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to tigers, and would even go so far as to say it was idiotic for him to make the comments he did–and I am prepared to say that in print. Does Mr. Mollinedo or your firm have any response?

1. Please provide a copy of the zoo’s written protocol concerning tiger escapes.

2. What is the size, caliber, and make of the zoo’s kill rifle(s)?

3. Where is it/are they stored?

4. How many people are authorized and trained to use it (them)? How often do they practice?

5. How many of those people were on the zoo grounds from 5-5:30 pm Christmas day?

6. Was a kill rifle (or rifles) and/or a shooting team deployed during Tatiana’s escape?

7. Minutes of the San Francisco Joint Zoo Committee talk about the improvements, including improvements to the lion house, providing keeper staging areas. Where is the nearest staging area to the to the tiger grotto and was it staffed at 5 pm on Christmas day?

8. When was the last date that the zoo conducted an emergency drill for an animal escape? AZA accreditation standards state “Emergency drills ensure that the instiutution’s staff know their duties and responsibilities and know how to handle mergencies properly when they occur…. Emergency drills shouldbe conducted at least once annually for each basic type of emergency.”

9. Please provide a copy of the record and evaluation of the last animal escape emergency drill? AZA standards state that “these drills need to be recorded and evaluated … Records of these drills need to be maintained.”

10. What training do security personnel recieve in how to respond to an animal emergency. How long is the training, who provides it, and are refreshers required? Had security personnel on duty that night been trained?

11. Why did cafe personnel not let the injured patrons inside so they would not be subject to further attacks? What are the policies about sheltering patrons in concession, entertainment and administrative areas during an animal attack?

12. Please provide a copy of the written protocol between the zoo and local police and other local emergency responders as required by AZA standards.

13. The Chronicle and other sources have reported that the tiger grotto was refurbished/remodeled recently and the cats returned in September. Is this true? Please describe what alterations or improvements were made? What contractor did the work? Was an architect involved in preparing plans and if so, who and at what firm? Was Tatiana housed in the same grotto prior to the remodel? Were keepers consulted in the rennovations?

14. There are at least two credible media accounts of tigers escaping from that grotto previously and one account of a near escape. These were known to keepers and in one case reported in a letter to zoo management. Was the zoo director aware of any of these accounts? Should he have been?

15. It is common practice in the business, public and nonprofit sector to consult with subordinates when conducting performance reviews of senior managers (a so-called 360 is one of the best known examples). When was the last performance review of Mr. Mollinedo conducted? Were keepers and other direct and indirect subordinates consulted as part of that review? Does the zoo have written policies in place concerning executive performance reviews? If so, please provide a copy.

16. I believe the zoo’s agreement with the city makes clear that zoo documents should be made available to the city Rec and Parks Department and therefore should be available to the public under the city’s sunshine law. The zoo, however, has not been forthcoming with specifics about the incident or readily provided related documentation. Why is this and how is this allowed under the contract?

17. Who was the designated person for emergency contact for the zoo at the time of the escape? When was that person accessed and by what form of communication?

18. Your firm specializes in crisis communication. The field of crisis communications is well established and has some commonly accepted principles. One of these is truthfulness–officials and spokespersons should be forthright and direct when communicating with employees, the public and the media. Another is timeliness–respond quickly to media and legal inquiries and be be proactive. Expressing empathy and putting people first are also important. Accepting responsibility goes a long way and blaming and attacking is contraindicated. As a public health official, I have been trained in crisis communication. Zoo management seems to be evasive and not forthcoming. Requests for interviews have not been responded to. How do you think the zoo performed initially in this regard and how have things changed since your firm became involved? For example, simple questions are still not being answered. I was surprised to know the zoo had been closed for a long time for a variety of reasons (including the fact that it was a crime scene) and then after they hired your firm, the Web site announces the zoo is closed in honor of the victims. This seem disingenuous to me. I find it dubious that that was really the motivating factor for the extended closure. Any response? (My own opinion is that given joint oversight, the wording of the agreement, and the fact that many dispositions will be conducted, I see no advantage to not responding affirmative and immediately to requests for information and records.)

19. Did the zoo have a media relations policy in place concerning employee interactions with the media prior to this incident. If so, please provide a copy.

20. Does the zoo have a response to SF Chronicle articles that paint a picture of poor management and very bad employee morale at the zoo?