Emotional debate at zoo safety hearing

January 11, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
There was an emotional debate at the first public safety hearing following a deadly tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo.

The zoo and its director were under fire as city officials held a lengthy hearing Friday that drew an overflow crowd. The tiger escape and attack has led to the biggest investigation in the zoo's 79-year history.

The 17-year-old victim, Carlos Sousa, Jr., was killed Christmas Day and buried this past Wednesday.

Just about anybody who anything to do with the zoo showed up on the fourth floor of City Hall Friday where the hearing was being held. There was really nothing new in terms of information. The officials who testified played it pretty close to the vest, probably because of the likelihood of a lawsuit against the city and the Zoological Society.

Now, with the police investigation over, the city commission that oversees the park called a special meeting. The agenda was to find out just what went wrong on Christmas Day that led to the killing of one teenager and mauling of two other young men.

On hand were the Zoological Society and the Recreation and Park Department. Both work cooperatively in the management of the San Francisco Zoo. The two addressed concerns on the immediate response that night.

"Within about 40 minutes or so of the initial reports, it was absolutely confirmed that there were no other animals loose and everything was under control in the zoo," said San Francisco Recreation and Park Director Yomi Agunbiade at the meeting.

They also discussed the zoo's strained relationship with its employees.

"There is a history of difficult employee issues at the zoo. Obviously this is a dangerous place to work for many of the keepers because of the nature of the animals that they care for," said Recreation and Park Commissioner Jim Lazarus.

But the day belonged to people who wanted to have their say. Dozens of people waited to tell the panel just what they thought. Most were supportive of the zoo.

One man said, "I think that the director of the Zoological Society is doing a wonderful job and I think we have to do whatever it takes to keep this institution open."

"I've enjoyed going to the zoo, not only because it's educational and I enjoy seeing the animals, but it's a social place and a safe haven for kids," said a young boy.

But others called on the zoo's director to resign.

Another speaker urged the city to "take a real serious look at the management situation at the zoo," and described it as "lackadaisical."

The zoo's director says he won't step down from his position and said today's hearing was a step in the right direction for securing the future of the zoo.

"I feel that the San Francisco Zoo has nothing to hide. I think the word that came out was transparency," said Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo.

The commission will now move forward with an outside audit of the zoo's safety procedures and policies.

Emotional debate at zoo safety hearing