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Wounds from tiger attack linger

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been almost one year since the Christmas Day tiger mauling that killed a San Jose teenager, and while the event inspired safety improvements in zoos nationwide, the San Francisco Zoo has yet to recover from the attack.

The event, and the riveting details later revealed, drew worldwide attention. A 250-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped her enclosure Christmas Day 2008, prowled zoo grounds, and ultimately killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and injured two friends.

For months afterward, the story played out in the media as rumors circulated that the young men had provoked the tiger, and investigations showed flaws both in Tatiana’s enclosure and zoo employees’ response.

One year later, the scars remain: The zoo will be closed this Christmas to commemorate the attack.

In response to the incident, the zoo spent $1.6 million in bond money to raise walls surrounding the tiger enclosure from 12½ feet to the 16 feet 4 inches recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The financial hit was followed by declining ticket sales, leaving the zoo with a nearly $2 million budget shortfall.

“We have a lot of work to do — it’s a serious financial challenge,” Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner. “This incident happened at a time when we saw visitorship on the rise and there was momentum for another bond.”

The incident also served as a cautionary tale for other zoos.

It prompted Oakland to spend $30,000 to boost fence heights — formerly 13 feet in some spots — around its own big-cat enclosures, according to Oakland Zoo Executive Director Joel Parrot, who called the incident a “shockwave” that went through the profession.

Zoos across the country made similar upgrades, according to Zoos and Aquariums Association spokesman Steve Feldman.

At Pennsylvania’s Erie Zoo, improvements to the tiger enclosure were already under way, but the San Francisco incident prompted it to add a few extra inches to new fences, according to President Scott Mitchell.

San Diego Zoo’s big-cat fences already met the Zoos and Aquariums Association standard, but the park added up to 1 foot in some places just to be on the safe side, said spokeswoman Christine Simmons.

Inspiring those changes “feels like a double-edged sword,” said Bob Jenkins, the San Francisco Zoo’s vice president of government and external affairs.

The zoo is expected to deliver a follow-up response by the end of 2008 to the Zoos and Aquariums Association’s investigation into the tiger attack, he said, adding that there will also likely be another inspection in early 2009.

“We hope it makes the industry much stronger, but we wish it could have been done in a different way,” Jenkins said.

The zoo’s fiscal quagmire has also resulted in a hiring freeze that left several top positions — including directors of operations, development, animal care and human resources — vacant, according to Carl Friedman, The City’s director of Animal Care and Control.

Friedman was asked by the mayor last summer to work with the zoo, after the institution’s executive director resigned. Friedman is scheduled to retire at the end of January, however. Additionally, Interim Director Tanya Peterson recently announced she plans to stay in the interim role “indefinitely,” and doesn’t intend to take the job permanently.

Zoo officials say they’ve been working closely with Newsom on new initiatives to attract more visitors, though details were not divulged.

For now, the zoo remains cautious about acquiring new animals, said Peterson. However, it’s banking on the idea that several new births last spring could draw patrons back, spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.

The zoo will also unveil a new rhinoceros enclosure in early 2009 — directly across from the refurbished big-cat exhibit.

Patron cited for scaling wall into rhino enclosure
Even a bevy of improvements embarked upon at the zoo following last December’s tiger attack couldn’t stop a patron from scaling the outer wall of the rhino enclosure earlier this month, officials said.

A male patron climbed the outer fence of the rhino exhibit Dec. 8.

Zoo patrons reported the break-in to zoo authorities before the man managed to breach the inner enclosure, according to Bob Jenkins, vice president of government and external affairs at the zoo.

“He was either trying to pet the rhino or have his picture taken with the rhino,” Jenkins said.

Although the patron and two female friends vanished before zoo security arrived, staff members detained them elsewhere in the park, and the man was cited for disturbing animals, a misdemeanor, according to officers at San Francisco’s Taraval police station, which serves the zoo.

After Carlos Sousa Jr. was killed by an escaped tiger last winter, the zoo posted signs throughout the park asking patrons to report anything they see that looks suspicious or dangerous, and that’s exactly what happened Dec. 8, according to Carl Friedman, director of The City’s Animal Care and Control.

It’s unlikely the zoo will make any safety-related changes to the rhino exhibit following the incident, according to Jenkins.

“If somebody wants to get over the fence, they will,” he said. “The only way to avoid it is to have no visitors at the zoo.”

Legal fight for zoo, city just beginning
As the first anniversary of a deadly Christmas Day tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo draws near, the legal fight is just beginning.

Carlos and Marilza Sousa, parents of victim Carlos Sousa Jr., expect to file their formal lawsuit against the zoo and The City by Dec. 27, attorney Michael Cardoza confirmed this month. The Sousas filed a wrongful-death claim in May that the City Attorney’s Office rejected in June.

The family will file for unspecified damages in the death of their son. They are weighing whether to request a memorial be erected in honor of their son, similar to the memorial to Tatiana, the massive Siberian tiger who killed him, Cardoza said.

The zoo would seriously consider installing a memorial to Sousa if asked, according to Interim Director Tanya Peterson.

Meanwhile, brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal filed a formal lawsuit in federal court in November against the zoo and The City.

The suit, filed by attorney Mark Geragos, claims the Dhaliwals “suffered and will continue to suffer from the attack, sustaining physical and emotional injuries.” They “are permanently scarred by this attack” and they will “continue to incur medical expenses and loss of earnings.” The lawsuit demands liability for their injuries.

Initial hearings in the case are scheduled for February.

As the anniversary of their son’s death approaches, the Sousa family’s pain remains fresh, according to Cardoza.

“With the season upon us, they’re reliving it now,” Cardoza said. “I had one of them on the phone crying, saying, ‘This is what Christmas is going to be like for the rest of my life.’”

Lawsuit filed by handler still in mediation
A lawsuit against the San Francisco Zoo from the handler who was attacked in 2006 while feeding the Siberian tiger that later killed a teenager last Christmas Day could head to trial Jan. 20.

Mediations between handler Lori Komejan, her attorneys and representatives of the zoo have been ongoing this fall, according to John Smith, one of Komejan’s attorneys. Smith would not disclose the nature of those discussions, but said a trial date is scheduled next month in San Francisco Superior Court.

Komejan was attacked during a public feeding of the zoo’s tigers Dec. 22, 2006. She had just finished giving tiger Tatiana her meal when a piece of meat fell into a drain trough outside the enclosure, according to court documents filed in October 2007.

As Komejan reached to fetch the meat, Tatiana reached under the bars of her cage and grabbed Komejan’s right arm, then her left arm, pulling both through the bars, according to court documents.

Komejan remains an employee of the zoo, although she has been off duty on workers’ compensation since the incident, according to spokeswoman Lora LaMarca.

An investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the lion house, where lions and tigers are fed, contained a defective cage in which big cats could reach under and through the bars, according to court documents. The attack and investigation prompted changes in the lion house.

Public feedings of the big cats were canceled for several months after Komejan’s attack, but resumed in summer 2007, according to LaMarca. They were abandoned once more after Tatiana fatally mauled Carlos Sousa Jr. last Christmas Day.

Officials are still weighing whether to bring them back, LaMarca said.

Timeline of a tragedy
Events leading up to and following last Christmas Day’s fatal tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo.

Dec. 22, 2006: Zoo’s Siberian tiger, Tatiana, mauls handler Lori Komejan, severely injuring both her forearms.
Dec. 25, 2007: Tatiana escapes enclosure and attacks Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, and brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal, then 19 and 23, killing Sousa and injuring the others. Police shoot and kill the tiger.
Dec. 28, 2007: Zoo officials admit tiger enclosure’s walls are shorter than the national standard.
Jan. 3: Zoo reopens to public and unveils memorial to Tatiana. Big-cat enclosure remains closed. Female polar bear nearly escapes her enclosure.
Jan. 8: Dhaliwal brothers file a legal claim against the zoo and The City. The same day, San Leandro police arrest Paul Dhaliwal for allegedly shoplifting at a Target store in San Leandro.
March 18: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums releases a report finding that the zoo was understaffed and unprepared for the Christmas Day attack.
May 14: Carlos Sousa Jr.’s parents, Carlos and Marilza, file a wrongful-death claim against the zoo and The City.
July 17: Hearing on legislation introduced by Supervisor Chris Daly to turn the zoo into an animal rescue center.
Sept. 16: Board of Supervisors vetoes Daly’s legislation.
Nov. 12: Dhaliwals file a lawsuit in federal court against the zoo and The City, accusing city officials of negligence in the attack and of violating their civil rights during the investigation.
Dec. 25: Zoo will close to commemorate tiger attack.
Dec. 27: Deadline for Sousa family to file lawsuit.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

December 18, 2008 at 4:44 AM

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