Officials preparing to reopen the San Francisco Zoo after a deadly tiger escape are worried visitors won't feel secure, though if past zoo attacks are any indication, curiosity might actually draw people in.
With the criminal investigation into the fatal mauling of a 17-year-old boy on Christmas all but over, the zoo is to reopen Thursday after nine days of news reports on the horrifying attack.
"We want to assure people the zoo is safe, we want to make sure wildlife conservation continues, and we want everyone to know we will move forward and ensure our mission," said Sam Singer, a public relations consultant hired by the zoo following the attacks on the teen and two other young men who survived.
Previous zoo and aquarium disasters suggest San Francisco officials might not have needed to retain a professional such as Singer for damage control.
Attendance at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans wasn't hurt in the weeks after a walkway collapsed and 10 people fell into a 400,000-gallon shark tank in 2002, spokeswoman Melissa Lee said.
"I would say certainly interest spiked," Lee said. "There's always a bit of morbid curiosity of people wanting to see where an accident took place."
No one was seriously hurt in the collapse, which occurred on a private tour of a feeding area normally closed to the public. The aquarium reopened the next day with the exhibit closed until the debris was removed, and the walkway, which was found to have an improper bolt, was never rebuilt, Lee said.
Gorilla's 'leap of a lifetime'
In March 2004, a 340-pound gorilla named Jabari escaped the Dallas Zoo, went on a 40-minute rampage through a forest and attacked four people, including a toddler, before officers shot it to death.
An investigation found that the escape was the result of what spokeswoman Susan Eckert called "a leap of a lifetime," not human error. Still, the facility spent $2.1 million on improvements, according to Eckert.
The zoo reopened the day after the attacks, with the gorilla habitat closed, and officials offered free admission to draw visitors back, Eckert said.
"We found that people were actually quite understanding," she said, citing a public opinion study conducted by the zoo shortly before the habitat reopened. "People, if anything, thought maybe we needed more money or something."
A 300-pound gorilla named Little Joe escaped its enclosure at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo in September 2003 and attacked a 2-year-old girl and a teenage zoo employee. The animal was tranquilized, and the zoo spent $2.4 million to upgrade its gorilla habitat.
Tiger likely escaped on its own
San Francisco Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo has said it was likely the 350-pound Siberian tiger jumped or climbed out of the enclosure — which has walls about 4 feet lower than recommended national standards — after an internal review showed no doors had been left open. Police have said their investigation shows the escape was not the result of any intentional release.
Officials from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums were scheduled to visit the zoo at the end of the week as part of a comprehensive safety review, Singer said.
An AZA spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Mollinedo has announced planned improvements to the big cat enclosure, including the installation of surveillance cameras and fencing. The work is expected to take 30 days or less, but officials haven't said when the pen will reopen.
But the zoo does not plan any special advertising campaigns to lure back wary visitors, Singer said.
"Everyone, in spite of this difficult tragedy, is looking forward to reopening the zoo and fulfilling its mission by getting people to focus on its mission of wildlife animal conservation," Singer said.