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San Francisco Zoo Director Defends Staff Amid Tiger Attack Victim's Criticism, Police Probe Alcohol Link

The director of the San Francisco Zoo brushed off criticism that two victims were denied help in the frantic moments after a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack, saying his employees acted heroically.

Meanwhile, authorities said Wednesday that they had discovered an empty vodka bottle in the vehicle the victims drove to the zoo, and were investigating whether alcohol had played any role in the attack.

The zoo is set to open Thursday for the first time since the tiger killed a teenager and injured his two friends, brothers ages 19 and 23. This week, an attorney for the survivors, Mark Geragos, levied criticism that the zoo was slow in its response to the escaped tiger.

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Click to read Adam Housley's on-the-scene blog.

"I am extremely satisfied that our zoo staff acted appropriately, and I'm very proud of the way that our zoo staff operated that evening," director Manuel Mollinedo said at a news conference.

He did not detail their actions, citing a continuing police investigation.

But, he said, "some of our staff did heroic things, and I hope that eventually they can be recognized for the way they handled some very difficult situations where they actually put their lives on the line."

Geragos said Tuesday that his clients, Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, tried to get help for their friend, Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, after the three were mauled, but were "denied entry" to a cafe where they had fled because the zoo was closing.

The brothers then spotted a female security guard who appeared "diffident" when told of the escaped tiger, Geragos said. Sousa was still outside the tiger exhibit, mortally wounded with a slashed throat.

"Who knows what would have happened if the guard had acted earlier?" Geragos said late Tuesday. "But Carlos would have stood a better chance of not dying. And maybe the police would not have shot the tiger, as well."

Zoo spokesman Sam Singer dismissed Geragos' claims as unreliable and noted that the San Francisco police have not finished their investigation.

"I never speculate on defense attorney hypotheses," Singer said.

According to police dispatch logs from the day of the attack, someone inside the cafe called emergency services at 5:07 p.m. It is unclear how long before that the brothers tried to notify people in the cafe about the attack.

The dispatch logs also show that zoo employees initially questioned whether early reports of the attack were coming from a mentally unstable person. By 5:10 p.m. zoo employees reported that a tiger was loose, and by 5:13 p.m., the zoo was being evacuated and locked down.

The tiger was shot at 5:27 p.m., logs show.

Late Wednesday, police said that the vodka bottle had been discovered on the front seat of the victims' car. But whether the discovery is relevant to the tiger attack remains to be seen, police spokesman Sgt. Steve Mannina said.

Toxicology tests on Sousa's body have not been completed yet, and results likely will not come back for several weeks, the San Francisco medical examiner's office said Wednesday. Geragos said he did not think a vodka bottle was recovered from the car.

Zoo officials believe the tiger climbed or jumped out of its enclosure before mauling the three men. The wall surrounding the grotto was 4 feet (more than a meter) lower than the recommended height.

Mollinedo said something prompted the tiger to leave its enclosure, but he would not elaborate because of the investigation. Authorities have been looking into what preceded the attack, including the possibility that the victims taunted the tiger.

"All I know is that something happened to provoke that tiger to leap out of her exhibit," Mollinedo said.

But a personal injury lawyer with experience suing the city said the zoo could be on the hook for a large payout even if it turns out the victims taunted the tiger.

"No matter what kind of taunting the kids did, the zoo is facing significant exposure because tigers shouldn't get out of their cages," said lawyer Khaldoun Baghdadi. "You almost don't need a law degree to know that."

The tiger area will not be open when the zoo resumes operations Thursday. Mollinedo has previously announced planned improvements to the big cat enclosure, including the installation of surveillance cameras and fencing. The work is expected to take 30 days or less, but officials haven't said when the pen will reopen.

Mollinedo said the facility will have signs posted warning people not to pester the animals and is in the process of putting a new public alert system in place that would notify visitors during emergencies. There was no such system in place at the time of the attack.