It was widely reported that on Christmas day, a 350-pound Siberian tiger escaped from her San Francisco Zoo enclosure, killing a 17-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends. At first, this tragic incident was seen as, well, a tragic incident. It was a horrible accident that left one person dead, two injured, and the tiger killed by police. But the zoo's director, Manuel Mollinedo's story was filled with so many contradictions that investigators looked closer at the event. At first, Mollinedo inaccurately told reporters that the wall between the tiger and the people was 18 feet high. Then it was revealed that it was actually only 12 ½ feet high, four feet below the recommended national standard. So you're probably thinking that obviously the zoo and Mollinedo would be held at fault.
Not so fast. You're forgetting that we live in the United States of Litigation. Knowing that the young men's families would probably sue, the zoo took the typical tactic of blaming the victims.
The zoo hired a crisis management expert, Sam Singer. He and Mollinedo then suggested that something must have happened to provoke the tiger -- as if that would take away the zoo's responsibility. So rumors started that the guys had been drinking, they had slingshots, and they taunted the tiger. Even after there was no proof of any of these things, the zoo continued to imply that the young men, not the zoo or the tiger, was at fault.
Let's pretend for a minute that the guys had taunted the animal. Such behavior may be cruel, and it may be stupid. But that's precisely why there should be tall walls between dangerous animals and people -- because sometimes people do foolish things around animals. Even if the guys had yelled, "Nah, nah, nah-nah. Can't catch us," it's hard to blame them for the tiger's escape.
Animal rights activists have long criticized Mollinedo for being less interested in the safety of animals and people than in "showmanship." I guess some of that showmanship might have been having a wall that was excitingly low, but dangerously lower than the recommended height.
Obviously, the tiger is dead, so she will not be present at any legal proceeding. But look for her memory to be invoked. Look for some attorney to talk about the tiger's death -- "the loss of a beautiful, innocent animal all because of the wanton behavior of some thoughtless youths." Or something like that. Look for the city of San Francisco and the zoo to cover its tails by claiming that even if they had a wall of the proper height -- or a hundred feet higher -- the accident still might have occurred because "who can predict the behavior of an animal when she is taunted by uncaring kids?" Look for someone to reveal that at least one of these three kids had misbehaved in elementary school once, "obviously" demonstrating a pattern of disregarding rules and regulations.
It's an additional tragedy that the families will continue to be hounded by ridiculous accusations. It would be nice if city and zoo officials, and Mollinedo would just say something like, "We really messed up. We are so sorry and we will feel this regret for the rest of our lives." In other words, take the responsibility for what occurred. But that's not going to happen. Personal responsibility has gone out the window, and somebody has probably sued somebody else because of the draft caused by that opened window.
McDonalds has been sued for causing obesity. Thieves who hurt themselves after they break into a house have sued homeowners. A Lancaster, Pennsylvania woman recently successfully sued a restaurant because she slipped and hurt herself on their wet floor -- even though the floor was wet because she had thrown a drink at her boyfriend. So, do you really think the right people are going to stand up and take the blame for this?
At some point, we may very well hear a representative of the zoo paraphrase a famous lawyer and say, "If animals maul, the victims must take the fall."
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Home Improvement" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org