Christmas Day tiger escape is a grim reminder of the risks of nonprofit mismanagement and the flaccid oversight that comes with self-regulation. No one is keeping an eye on the tiger, or its keeper.
Since the fatal attack of the Siberian tiger on a zoo visitor, plenty has emerged about the management practices at the San Francisco Zoo (EIN 94-1429538 Form 990) and about the process of zoo accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquarioums (EIN 55-0526930 Form 990). As might be expected, the San Francisco Chronicle provided intensive coverage, but I was struck by how extensive it was, with several days of headlines that convey an impression of an organization, if not a whole industry, out of control:
- Outrage at City Hall: Newsom, supes demand changes (Cecilia M. Vega, Wyatt Buchanan - December 27)
- Tiger grotto wall shorter than thought, may have contributed to escape and fatal attack (Kevin Fagan & other staff - December 28)
- Security cameras, emergency lights too expensive for most zoos (Steve Rubenstein - December 28)
- Zoo workers did not announce tiger escape, failed to follow rules (Steve Rubenstein, Kevin Fagan - December 29)
- Police, fire logs in S.F. tiger mauling show scene of chaos, delay (Jaxon Van Derbeken, Kevin Fagan - December 29)
- Big-cat experts say a determined tiger could get over a 12-1/2 foot wall (Erin Allday - December 29)
- S.F. Zoo's history of mismanagement; morale down under new director (Patricia Yollin - December 30)
- Beloved but beleaguered zoo. Grotto design: Keepers say many people were aware of potential for tigers to escape (Steve Rubenstein - December 30)
Outside of San Francisco a few newspapers went further than the AP stories:
- The Washington Post (Marc Kaufman and Sylvia Moreno) and LA Times (Charles Piller and Tim Reiterman) expanded on the incident a year before when Tatiana, the same tiger that escaped, had injured a zoo keeper. Many stores quoted zoo director Manual A. Mollinedo saying that in that incident "the tiger was acting like a tiger normally does." But the Post also noted:
A California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation into the incident faulted the zoo, which upgraded security for its five tigers as a result and paid an $18,000 fine.
- The Post also went over the housing of the big cats at the National Zoo and previous incidents with big cats: the 1958 death of a child who got too close to a caged lion and a 1995 incident where a woman climbed into the lion exhibit overnight and was found dead the next day. And just last year a 30-pound clouded leopard was found outside its enclosure one morning before the zoo opened.
- In New York, the Times reported (Ken Belson) that there was greater concern locally about exotic pets than zoo animals. In 2003, a 400 pound Bengal tiger and a five foot long caiman (a crocodile relative) were found in an apartment in Harlem.
- The San Diego Union Tribune (Jeanette Steele) went into the zoo safety issue at the greatest length. Recent incidents include an escaped alligator at the Los Angeles Zoo (2007) and escaped gorillas at the Dallas Zoo (2004) and at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston (2003). There are other animal escapes at the zoo, but they don't get as much attention if the animals aren't on the dangerous list (big cats, elephants, great apes, and bears—for some reason alligators don't make the list)
- The LA Times opinion blog offered the best gossip by recalling an incident in 2001 when Manuel Mollinedo was director of the LA Zoo. While giving a tour to Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (and, incidentally, the former Mr. Sharon Stone), a Komodo dragon bit off a piece of Mr. Bronstein's toe, after Mr. Mollinedo advised him to take off his white shoes because they resembled the white rats that were fed to the reptile. I wonder whether the full court press coverage by the Chronicle had its roots in this painful encounter (after all, an editor never forgets).
- [Update] Bringing up the rear, the Chicago Tribune (James Janega) reports on January 1 (a week after the incident) that the Lincoln Park Zoo has removed some grass cover that had been planted in the moat around its tiger enclosure. The story included a graphic comparison of the moats in San Francisco, Lincoln Park and the Brookfield Zoo.
As the story continues to come out in slow motion, I wonder how much attention will be given to the accreditation process of the AZA (the Association of Zoos and Aquariums). This private nonprofit, organized as a 501(c)(3) charity, currently accredits 216 institutions, chiefly in the US. Its accreditation standards include safety provisions like this one:
All areas housing venomous animals, or animals which pose a serious threat of catastrophic injury and/or death (e.g. venomous snakes, polar bears, killer whales, large felines, and others), must be equipped with appropriate alarm systems, and/or have protocols and procedures in place which will notify staff in the event of a bite injury, attack, or escape from the enclosure. These systems and/or protocols and procedures must be routinely checked to insure proper functionality, and periodic drills must be conducted to insure that appropriate staff are notified.
Institutions maintaining potentially dangerous animals (sharks, whales, tigers, bears, etc.) must have appropriate safety procedures in place to prevent attacks and injuries by these animals. Appropriate response procedures must also be in place to deal with an attack resulting in an injury. These procedures must be practiced routinely per the emergency drill requirements contained in these standards.
Also of interest are the guidelines for accreditation, which is a peer-review process that organizations undertake every five years. As is frequently the case with peer accreditation, the process and the reports relating to it are confidential. The organization undergoing accreditation does not select the members of the visiting committee that conducts the on-site inspection, but the organization's CEO/director does get a chance to review the pool of potential inspectors and eliminate names at that stage.
The process of accreditation involves answering a questionnaire and supplying supporting documentation about six months in advance of the accreditation date. Then the inspection committee reviews of documents and has the on-site visit, which concludes with an exit interview presenting major and lesser concerns. The institution is expected to file a written response to the concerns, after which there is a closed hearing with the CEO/director of the institution, and the inspection commission makes its decision to grant, table, or deny accreditation. Tabling is reviewed after a year, and a denial can be appealed to the AZA full board.
The problem with a peer review process of this sort, it seems to me, is that the overall pool is extremely small with just over 200 members of the association. It means everyone at the administrative level in the zoo business knows everyone else, probably for years, and there is a significant risk that collegiality could trump objectivity in the accreditation process.
The other difficulty with the peer review process is that, like most charities, the majority of the membership will be relatively small scale institutions. For instance, the San Francisco Zoo, despite its location in a major metropolitan area, reports income of just under $30 million and a staff of 163. By contrast, the San Diego Zoo (EIN 95-1648219 Form 990) has income of over $200 million and staff of 1,928—the income from its gift shop equals the entire budget of the SF Zoo. What this means is that the peer review group will necessarily consist of staff from the smaller scale local zoos, not the world-class attractions like San Diego. There is no reason to expect that such a process will establish and enforce the highest standards. It seems more likely that it will simply endorse the conditions in the mid-range, financially strapped local zoos.
Zoos and aquariums are peculiar institutions from an ethical standpoint, since it is difficult to create a standard of ethical care for wild animals held captive as a tourist attraction. And yet, long after cities have lost their local amusement parks to large, regional theme parks, literally hundreds of zoos and aquariums remain. In most cases, charity nonprofits have a significant role in their operation (in San Francisco, a 501(c)(3) charity runs the zoo, while the city retains the property and buildings). It seems that in this instance, charities are actually perpetuating institutions that reflect obsolete ethics and values.
On another subject: in reviewing the Form 990s, I found once again that Guidestar isn't up to date. The most current Form 990 for the SF Zoo is available on the organization's web site and shows that zoo director Manuel Mollinedo takes home a healthy compensation of $314,038, plus $15,702 in benefits and an expense account of $9,548. This is a significant increase over the previous year, when his compensation numbers were $200,000/$10,000/$0.
Mr. Mollinedo appears to take home significantly more than the compensation reported for San Diego Zoo director Douglas Myers, whose income for the year ended 1/31/2006 (which is the most current both in Guidestar and on the web site) is reported as $243,399/$39,239/$8,376. Again, the SD Zoo is about ten times the size of the SF Zoo.