San Francisco Zoo Facing Growing Allegations of Negligence in Tiger Killing and Maulings

The legal status of the San Francisco Zoo appears to be worsening. The zoo’s director admitted on Thursday that a wall that separated the public from the zoo’s tigers is nearly 6 feet lower than initially reported — and nearly 4 feet lower than industry standards. In the meantime, the father of the teen killed by the tiger has accused of the zoo of negligence.

The killed teen’s father, Carlos Sousa, has stated that he views the zoo as negligent in his son’s death. In addition to killing his 17-year-old boy, the tiger mauled two brothers who were visiting the zoo with the teenager.

The zoo director said that the dry moat between the wall and the tiger exhibit is 33 feet, but the wall itself is 12 and a half feet, not 18 feet.

The police are reportedly looking into a shoe print on the inside of the enclosure and the possibility that the tiger escaped by latching on to a leg or other body part of one of the victims to escape.

The lower wall may explain the skepticism of experts over the theory that the tiger lept out of the enclosure. Experts said such an extraordinary feat would reduce possible liability by showing that it was unforeseeable and unprecedented. Thus, it would not have been unreasonable for the Zoo to have planned for such an occasion.

Police Chief Heather Fong said the department has opened a criminal investigation to “determine if there was human involvement in the tiger getting out or if the tiger was able to get out on its own.”
Police said they have not ruled anything out, including whether the escape was the result of carelessness or a deliberate act. Fong said officers were gathering evidence from the tiger’s enclosure as well as accounts from witnesses and others.

One zoo official insisted the tiger did not get out through an open door and must have climbed or leaped out. But Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo and a frequent guest on TV, said such a leap would be an unbelievable feat, and “virtually impossible.”

“There’s something going on here. It just doesn’t feel right to me,” he said. “It just doesn’t add up to me.” Instead, he speculated that visitors might have been fooling around and might have taunted the animal and perhaps even helped it get out by, say, putting a board in the moat.

Similarly, Ron Magill, a spokesman at the Miami Metro Zoo, said it is unlikely a zoo tiger could make such a leap, even with a running start. “Captive tigers aren’t nearly in the kind of shape that wild tigers have to be in to survive,” he said. He said taunting can definitely make an animal more aggressive, but “whether it makes it more likely to get out of an exhibit is purely speculative.”

Both taunting and criminal acts are foreseeable for zoos and must be considered in designing and running a facility.

Zoo attacks (sounds like a Fox special, I know) are not uncommon. Under the common law, possessors are strictly liable for injuries causes by their wild animals. A Siberian tiger would certainly fit into that category. However, many states have passed special legislation to protect zoos from strict liability, often returning them to a standard negligence standard.

Only a year ago, the National Zoo in Washington was briefly shut down after a clouded leopard escaped overnight and was found snoozing in another part of the zoo.

Courts have rejected strict liability claims on the basis that this is a public enterprise as well as rejecting attractive nuisance claims for children injured. In Guzzi v. New York Zoological Soc’y, 182 N.Y.S. 257 (N.Y. App. Div. 1920), the court held that the society, which maintained the Bronx Zoo, would not be liable in strict liability or nuisance after a girl who crept under the cage of a bear.

The problem of the zoo is that it appears that this is a second attack by this tiger at this zoo. Families watched in shock in 2006 when Tatiana mauled a zoo keeper.

To make matters worse for the zoo, emergency personnel have complained that there was confusion and insufficient lighting in responding to the emergency call.

The tiger arrived in San Francisco from the Denver Zoo on December 16, 2005.

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2 thoughts on “San Francisco Zoo Facing Growing Allegations of Negligence in Tiger Killing and Maulings”

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