Animal Escape Artists: What Zoos Must Learn from Tatiana

Article excerpt

When 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. visited the San Francisco Zoo last Christmas, he had no reason fear for his safety. He could never have anticipated that Tatiana, the zoo's 300-pound Siberian tiger, would jump out of its enclosure and attack him. Sousa was fatally mauled and two brothers accompanying him, Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, suffered severe bite and claw wounds on their heads, necks, arms and hands. Zoo officials promptly closed the facility, and police responding to the scene shot and killed the tiger.

This tragic incident has brought the regulations that oversee the nation's zoos under intense scrutiny. Allegedly, the tiger jumped out of" an enclosure that was surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat and a wall that, at 12.5 feet high, stood nearly four feet below the height recommended by the the main accrediting agency for zoos in the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

In spite of this discrepancy,, AZA President and CEO Jim Maddy stood by the San Francisco Zoo. "The San Francisco Zoo is a great zoo," said Maddy in a statement. "it's an accredited AZA member in good standing."

The zoo has since raised the walls to the recommended height, and added glass barriers and electrified wires to prevent Future escapes. Nevertheless, the zoo could face heavy fines from regulators and be stripped of its exhibitor license.

While authorities remain unsure exactly how Tatiana escaped the exhibit, big cat experts agree that an adult tiger able to stretch 10 feet or more could have easily overcome a 12.5 feet wall with a hop from its powerful hind legs. The physical prowess of these felines cannot be underestimated; just getting its paws on the ledge would have been enough for Tatiana to pull herself out of the enclosure.

To complicate matters further, incriminating details about the victims began to emerge. Toxicology results for Paul Dhaliwal revealed that his blood alcohol level shortly after the mauling was 0.16 (twice the legal limit for driving) and the brothers later admitted to yelling and waving at the animal.

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Even if the tiger attack had been provoked, however, the San Francisco Zoo could still be hit with a huge lawsuit by the victims or their families. "California changed its law a few decades ago to comparative negligence, which makes the plaintiff's negligence a partial rather than complete defense," says Kevin Clermont, a professor at Cornell Law School. "After all the evidence comes in, the case would go to the jury, which would estimate fault of the two sides in percentage terms." Given the possible provocation by the victims, the zoo's percentage of fault may be less than it would be otherwise. But even a small percentage could equate to a large sum.

Regardless of what the police investigation ultimately discovers, the fact that a man-eating animal was able to escape from an exhibit casts doubt on the zoo's ability to operate safely. Only a year before Sousa's death, Tatiana gave the zoo unwanted attention after devouring the right arm of a zookeeper, Lori Komejan, then 47, in clear view of horrified visitors. The zoo was fined $18,000 for inadequate safety precautions and training, and still faces a lawsuit filed by Komejan.

What Went Wrong?

It is important to keep zoo casualties in perspective. "With over 100 million people going to America's zoos each year--and keeping in mind that most zoos have been around for over 50 years--hundreds of millions of people have been, and still are, safe at zoos," says Patricia Janeway, communications director at the Detroit Zoo.

Nonetheless, recent animal attacks have brought the regulations and standards that govern the nation's zoos into sharper focus. The United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is the branch of the federal government tasked with regulating zoos and other animal exhibitions under the guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act. …