Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fatal Escape

Safety-Proofing Our Zoos: Is It Enough? National Geographic Channel’s Explorer Investigates Fatal San Francisco Zoo Tiger Escape

“If you had asked me the day before, was it adequate for holding animals? I would have told you yes. Obviously, it wasn’t. – Manuel Mollinedo, Director, San Francisco Zoo

On Christmas Day 2007, a 243-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped from her open-air enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled three young men. Before long, one 17-year-old boy and the 4-year-old tigress lay dead. The incident was the first time a visitor was killed by an escaped animal at an accredited zoo in the United States. How did the tiger escape from an enclosure with a 29-foot dry moat? And could it happen again?

Premiering Sunday, August 10, 2008, at 10 PM ET/PT, Explorer: Zoo Tiger Escape investigates the how and why of what really happened that night — from the possible motivational factors that led the tiger to escape, to the complex evolution of enclosure design. The show provides exclusive documentary access to the San Francisco Zoo’s efforts to reconstruct its tiger enclosure, as well as candid interviews with zoo staff members on the tragedy. Finally, find out how zoo standards across the country are keeping dangerous animals and zoo visitors safe from each other.

“I think our zoo staff, the zoo family, took this incident very hard,” says San Francisco Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo. Contemplating the nature of the attack, he adds, “All I can I say is that something extraordinary happened to motivate that animal to want to leap out of that area. For a cat to expend that much energy, something had to prompt her to want to get out.”

To demonstrate what it would have taken for Tatiana to escape, Explorer: Zoo Tiger Escape looks to expert animal handler Randy Miller, who trains tigers for feature films and entices his Siberian tiger Titan with a piece of meat. The tiger makes a 12-foot jump with ease, but at 14 feet, the tiger refuses to jump. The moat in San Francisco is more than twice that wide, and it seems unlikely that Tatiana would have jumped such a distance. The other way out is up and over a 12-foot, 9-inch wall. Randy tries Titan on a 9-foot vertical wall, which he clears effortlessly, but stops there. So was there another motivational factor besides hunger? Eyewitnesses speculate that the men may have taunted Tatiana or climbed up onto the rail meant to separate her from the public. But there was no hard evidence, and the claim has since been denied.

Then, explore how the evolution of zoo enclosure design could have contributed to such a catastrophic failure. In the early 20th century, zoos began removing traditional bars and using moats as barriers. The San Francisco Zoo’s moated big cat grotto remained virtually unchanged between 1941 and the day of the attack on December 25, 2007.

Explorer: Zoo Tiger Escape examines whether or not this type of old fashioned design was secure enough to contain a more athletic zoo animal like Tatiana, which had a more developed habitat, nutritional program and enrichment activities. Essentially, could the combination of an old exhibit and a very athletic cat have created the opportunity for the tiger escape in San Francisco?

Today, zoos work to balance visitor safety concerns with the animals’ physical and mental health. Explorer: Zoo Tiger Escape travels to the Philadelphia Zoo, where the state-of-the-art Big Cat Falls is redefining animal enclosure design. Each species of cat has its own yard and indoor space, expanded by a series of tunnels and skyways that allows them to circulate from yard to yard. The designers’ job was to give the cats the maximum amount of territory while staying within the confines of the existing zoo. The goal was also to bring people and animals as close together as possible while keeping the public safe. To do this, the designers chose triple-layered laminated safety glass.

“You can actually get a wild animal within inches of somebody’s face. And that was the real profound change at Big Cat Falls, was really allowing that kid to be 2 inches away from the nose of a lion. I mean that’s an amazing experience!” says Marc L’Italien, exhibit designer at architecture firm EHDD.

Other safety precautions are at play in zoos without such modern design. Across the country, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires zoos to hold four emergency drills a year to prepare for an animal escape as part of their accreditation. Viewers see staff at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., spring into action during a simulated cheetah escape. If an animal gets loose, a keeper’s primary goal is to recapture it. However, if human life is at risk — as in the case of Tatiana — keepers may have no choice but to kill the animal.

Back in San Francisco, the zoo is getting ready to start afresh with the reopening of the tiger exhibit, two months after the escape. The walls have been rebuilt with a new barrier over 21 feet high, walls with more than 16 feet of sheer concrete and 5 extra feet of glass. Keepers celebrate the addition of three irresistibly cute Sumatran tiger cubs, part of a new breeding plan not only to help save the tiger from extinction but also to allow the public to continue to enjoy these impressive species — from a safe distance.

Explorer: Zoo Tiger Escape Premieres Sunday, August 10, 2008, at 10 PM ET/PT

(Image: Tatiana, a Siberian tiger, mauled a zookeeper in December 2006. She escaped and San Francisco police officers killed her. Chronicle file photo by Kurt Rogers)