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 lawyer for the 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.
So far, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits the nation's zoos, and the San Francisco zoo's overseers are standing by 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 Mollinedo's handling of the attack.
AZA spokesman Steve Feldman added that Mollinedo is "well-liked and well regarded" within the industry.
Before coming to San Francisco, Mollinedo was widely praised for his work at the long-neglected Los Angeles Zoo, even though a dozen animals slipped out of their enclosures during the course of a year.
Mollinedo was the unanimous choice over more than 100 candidates for the San Francisco job. He makes about $330,000 a year in salary and benefits, and under his leadership the zoo has seen increased attendance, new corporate sponsors and refurbished exhibits at the Depression-era facility.
Then came the tiger attack. The 350-pound Siberian tiger apparently jumped over a 12 1/2-foot wall around its pen and killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. His friends, brothers Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, and Paul Dhaliwal, 19, were mauled.
Sousa was laid to rest Tuesday in San Jose. The Dhaliwal brothers largely kept a low profile at the funeral and declined to speak to reporters.
The zoo's initial response to the attack seemed confused and disorganized. Police radio transcripts reveal that zoo employees initially questioned whether early reports of the attack were coming from a mentally unstable person.
When questioned by reporters, Mollinedo gave an inaccurate figure for the wall's height, putting it at 18 feet. Then, two days after the attack, he acknowledged the wall was only 12 1/2 feet — or 4 feet below the recommended national standard.
Several days after the mauling, the zoo hired Sam Singer, a prominent San Francisco Bay-area crisis-management specialist. Acknowledging that the zoo had bungled its initial response, Singer adopted a new strategy.
Soon, the public and the media's attention turned from the competence of zoo officials and the substandard tiger exhibit to the victims' behavior before the escape.
At a news conference, Mollinedo suggested "something happened to provoke that tiger to leap out of her exhibit."
A rash of false information soon emerged in the media, including reports that the victims had slingshots and had been drinking near the zoo.
Singer acknowledged on Tuesday that he told reporters about the slingshot rumor, but said he was passing along information he had heard elsewhere. He said he did not plant the rumor about the bar.
A police spokesman told The Associated Press last week that investigators quickly dismissed the slingshot allegation as inaccurate.
Mark Geragos, the lawyer for the mauled survivors of the tiger attack, lambasted Singer's 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," Geragos said.
Animal rights activists have long accused of Mollinedo of putting entertainment over animals' well-being.
"There just been a lack of respect for the animals to increase foot traffic," Katz said. Mollinedo's crowd-pleasing initiatives, such as public feedings of big cats, have made them more aggressive, he said.
Mayor Gavin Newsom sticks by the zoo director, said Nathan Ballard, a mayoral spokesman. David Lee, a recreation and parks commissioner, also defended Mollinedo's leadership.
"The zoo is an old institution, very traditional, and some felt it hadn't changed much until Manuel came up," Lee said. "He brought innovation, new ideas, and everyone benefited from that, people and animals."