Zoo could face fines, lose accreditation due to tiger attack
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 also be stripped of its exhibitor license and its accredidation could be at risk. It could even face criminal charges, depending on results of an investigation.
"All this legal action is likely to impact the financial viability of the zoo," said Rory Little, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. "Whether the zoo can stay open is a big question."
It is becoming increasingly clear that the 350-pound Siberian tiger that killed a teenager and severely mauled two other visitors in a Christmas Day attack climbed over a wall that at 12 1/2 feet was about 4 feet below the recommended minimum for US zoos.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which typically accredits zoos every five years and set the height standard, did not immediately return calls yesterday. It has in previously released statements this week stood by the zoo, saying it is a member in good standing.
The organization, however, has declined to renew the zoo's accreditation before. In January 2005, the zoo lost its accreditation after a three-day inspection found a number of operational and maintenance problems. The zoo eventually received full accreditation in March 2006 after the organization found the problems had been corrected.
Manuel Mollinedo, director of the San Francisco Zoo, said the association did not note any deficiencies with the wall around the tiger enclosure.
The US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, could also impose penalties, including fines, or suspend or revoke the zoo's exhibitor license if the zoo is found to have violated federal regulations on animal enclosures. Mollinedo said inspectors from the department had visited the zoo.
Legal specialists said lawsuits are also possible. Already, the zoo is facing a lawsuit by Lori Komejan, a zookeeper who was attacked last year when she fed the same tiger involved in the deadly escape. The animal mauled her arm.
In October, Komejan sued the city of San Francisco, seeking compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, and emotional distress.
She accused the city, which owns the zoo property, of "housing the tigers with reckless disregard for the safety of animal handlers and members of the general public."
The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety issued a report that found the zoo at fault for Komejan's injuries. The report said zoo 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 safety improvements.
The zoo added customized steel mesh over the bars, built in a feeding chute, and increased the distance between the public and the cats.
Komejan's lawyer, Michael Mandel, said he sees parallels between Komejan's case and the Christmas attack, when the tiger killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and mauled his friends Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23.
"In both cases, there were certainly insufficient safeguards to protect both employees and the public," Mandel said.
Three years ago, two elephants died at the zoo, prompting it to remove its remaining elephants to an animal sanctuary.
Among the lawsuits that the zoo could face would be those filed by the victims and their families, even if investigators find that Sousa and his friends had provoked the tiger or ignored warnings not to taunt the animals, Little said.
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 surviving victims could also be charged with a crime if they are found to have caused or contributed to Sousa's death, even unintentionally, he said.