San Francisco Zoo officials detail two animal security incidents since tiger attack

Saturday, January 12, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- Since a tiger escaped its pen and killed a person, a snow leopard has ripped a small opening in its wire cage and workers have had to dart a polar bear to goad it into its night enclosure, San Francisco Zoo officials said Friday.

A nearly 100-pound snow leopard managed to rip a 4-inch hole in its wire mesh cage Thursday afternoon and got part of its head and paw out, zoo officials said. A zookeeper could have been harmed if she had not secured the cage, but visitors were never threatened because the cage was in a larger, secured enclosure, zoo spokesman Sam Singer said.

Last week, employees used darts to goad an obstinate polar bear into its night enclosure so that employees could work to raise the height of the walls there, zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said. The bear never reached a height that would have allowed it to leave, she said.

Singer called the incident a "minor breach" and said the bear was not trying to escape. He denied the wall was raised because of the Jan. 3 incident.

Disclosure of the incidents comes after a 250-pound tiger escaped from its pen and attacked three zoo visitors on Christmas Day. Zoo officials have said the tiger likely climbed over a wall surrounding its enclosure that measured 121/2 feet -- 4 feet lower than nationally recommended standards -- after it was provoked.

Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, was killed in the Dec. 25 attack and his two friends were severely injured.

Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo said the leopard had been moved from the feline conservation area so workers could do maintenance there.

"At no point was there any danger to the public. This was a double containment area," Mollinedo said.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos throughout the United States, will send a three-person inspection team to San Francisco later this month, association spokesman Steve Feldman said.

"They'll be looking at the specifics of recent incidents, as well as the big-cat program in particular," Feldman said.

Mollinedo made his remarks during the first of several hearings at city hall examining the tiger attack and ways to improve safety.

"Like you, I am committed to finding answer to make sure this type of accident does not happen again," Mollinedo said.

Dozens of zoo supporters and critics packed the hearing room to give public testimony. Most voiced support for the zoo, but many called for a change in management and asked Mollinedo to resign.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners asked zoo officials to prepare a plan to improve security and emergency response, and ordered the city controller to audit the zoo's finances and performance.

Meanwhile, in a courtroom across the street from City Hall hearings, lawyers for the city and the surviving victims -- Paul Dahliwal and Kulbir Dahliwal -- appeared before a judge regarding items taken from the scene of the attack and from the brothers' car.

City officials believe that the items, including cell phones and clothing, could offer proof they were intoxicated and threw objects into the tiger enclosure shortly before the attacks, according to documents filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court.

The victims' lawyer insists the men did not taunt the tiger.

At the hearing Friday, a judge granted a request by the victims' attorney to move the case to Santa Clara County, where the brothers live. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

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