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Zoo chief says staff acted heroically in tiger attack

The director of the San Francisco Zoo brushed off criticism Wednesday that two victims were denied help in the frantic moments after a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The director of the San Francisco Zoo brushed off criticism Wednesday that two victims were denied help in the frantic moments after a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack, saying his employees acted heroically.

The zoo is set to open Thursday for the first time since the tiger killed a teenager and injured his two friends, brothers ages 19 and 23.

"I am extremely satisfied that our zoo staff acted appropriately, and I'm very proud of the way that our zoo staff operated that evening," director Manuel Mollinedo said at a news conference.

He did not detail their actions, citing a continuing police investigation.

But, he said, "some of our staff did heroic things, and I hope that eventually they can be recognized for the way they handled some very difficult situations where they actually put their lives on the line."

Survivors' lawyer criticizes zoo
Mollinedo's remarks came a day after the lawyer for the attack's two survivors said the zoo was slow in responding to their pleas for help.

Attorney Mark Geragos said his clients, Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, tried to get help for their friend, Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, after the three were mauled, but were "denied entry" to a cafe where they had fled because the zoo was closing.

The brothers then spotted a female security guard who appeared "diffident" when told of the escaped tiger, Geragos said. Sousa was still outside the tiger exhibit, mortally wounded with a slashed throat.

"Who knows what would have happened if the guard had acted earlier?" Geragos said late Tuesday. "But Carlos would have stood a better chance of not dying. And maybe the police would not have shot the tiger, as well."

Zoo spokesman Sam Singer dismissed Geragos' claims as unreliable and noted that the San Francisco police have not finished their investigation.

"I never speculate on defense attorney hypotheses," Singer said.

Tiger likely escaped on its own
According to police dispatch logs from the day of the attack, someone inside the cafe called 911 at 5:07 p.m. It is unclear how long before that the brothers tried to notify people in the cafe about the attack.

The dispatch logs also show that zoo employees initially questioned whether early reports of the attack were coming from a mentally unstable person. By 5:10 p.m. zoo employees reported that a tiger was loose, and by 5:13 p.m., the zoo was being evacuated and locked down.

The tiger was shot at 5:27 p.m., logs show.

Zoo officials believe the tiger climbed or jumped out of its enclosure before mauling the three men. The wall surrounding the grotto was 4 feet lower than the recommended height.

Mollinedo said something prompted the tiger to leave its enclosure, but he wouldn't elaborate because of the investigation. Authorities have been looking into what preceded the attack, including the possibility that the victims taunted the tiger.

"All I know is that something happened to provoke that tiger to leap out of her exhibit," Mollinedo said.

The tiger area will not be open when the zoo resumes operations Thursday. Mollinedo has previously 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.

Mollinedo said the facility will have signs posted warning people not to pester the animals and is in the process of putting a new public alert system in place that would notify visitors during emergencies. There was no such system in place at the time of the attack.