- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

From combined dispatches

SAN FRANCISCO — Since the deadly tiger escape at the San Francisco Zoo, its director has come under increasing criticism over his track record and his suggestion that the victims brought the attack on themselves by taunting the animal.

The attorney for two of the visitors mauled in the Christmas Day attack is threatening a defamation lawsuit over what he claims is a despicable blame-the-victim strategy on the part of the zoo, and animal rights activists have long accused Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo of putting too much emphasis on showmanship.

“We’ve asked for his termination,” said Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals.

The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which accredits the nation’s zoos, and the San Francisco Zoo’s overseers are standing by Mr. Mollinedo.

“Since Manuel joined us in 2004, the zoo is in better physical and financial shape than it’s ever been,” said Nick Podell, president of the San Francisco Zoological Society. He praised Mr. Mollinedo’s handling of the attack.

AZA spokesman Steve Feldman said Mr. Mollinedo is “well-liked and well-regarded” within the industry.

Before coming to San Francisco, Mr. Mollinedo was widely praised for his work at the Los Angeles Zoo, even though a dozen animals slipped out of their enclosures during the course of a year.

Mr. Mollinedo was the unanimous choice over more than 100 other candidates for the San Francisco job. He makes about $330,000 a year in salary and benefits, and under his leadership the zoo has increased its attendance, added new corporate sponsors and refurbished exhibits.

Then, on Christmas Day, a 350-pound Siberian tiger apparently jumped over a 12½-foot wall around her pen and killed Carlos Sousa Jr., 17. His friends, brothers Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, and Paul Dhaliwal, 19, were severely mauled.

When questioned by reporters initially, Mr. Mollinedo gave an inaccurate figure for the wall’s height, putting it at 18 feet. Two days after the attack, he acknowledged that the wall was only 12½ feet — or 4 feet below the recommended national standard.

Several days after the mauling, the zoo hired Sam Singer, a Bay Area crisis-management specialist, who adopted a new strategy. Soon, the attention of the public and the press turned from the competence of zoo officials and the substandard tiger exhibit to the victims’ behavior leading up to the escape.

At a press conference, Mr. Mollinedo suggested “something happened to provoke that tiger to leap out of her exhibit.”

A rash of false information soon emerged in the press, including reports that the victims had slingshots and had been drinking in an establishment near the zoo.

Mr. Singer said yesterday that he told reporters about the slingshot rumor, but that he was passing along information he had heard elsewhere. He denied planting the rumor about the bar.

“Police are investigating accusations of the use of a slingshot and the possible use of stones, pine cones or other pieces of wood or that may have been used to taunt the tiger,” he said yesterday. “That’s fact.”

A police spokesman told the Associated Press last week that investigators quickly dismissed the slingshot claim as inaccurate.

Mark Geragos, the attorney for the mauled survivors of the tiger attack, lambasted the tactics as “an abomination” and threatened to sue for defamation. “To be attacked by a tiger, number one, then to be attacked viciously by false and defamatory stuff is too much,” he said.

On Monday night, hundreds of people crowded into a San Jose church to attend a funeral Mass for Carlos, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The Roman Catholic Mass was delivered in Portuguese and was preceded by a short eulogy given by a family friend who said Carlos’ father, Carlos Sousa Sr., had asked him to speak.

The man addressed the crowd in Portuguese, then in English, describing Carlos as a boy who loved music, particularly rap, and who aspired to be a music producer. He said Carlos loved the Oakland Raiders and had been wearing a Marcus Allen Raiders jersey when he was killed, according to the Chronicle. Carlos was buried yesterday at a local cemetery.

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