Guest blog written by Maggie O’Neill.
Spending New Year’s Eve in San Francisco this year the buzz on the streets and around cocktail tables was
not about resolutions and champagne, but rather on big cats and a bizarre Christmas Day tiger attack. The story had gripped the city, and cities beyond the Bay as well, I am sure. Even my friends in Rome, perusing the cover stories of the International Herald Tribune, read about Tatiana, the Siberian tiger who had escaped her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled three young men (one to death) before being shot and killed by the SFPD.
Counter women at Macy’s, Starbuck’s baristas and everyone I spoke to could not help but take a stand for one side or an other. The Bhutto assassination, presidential primaries and Jamie Lynn Spears all took a back seat to Tatiana and the fateful incident at the San Francisco Zoo.
What we know happened this Christmas afternoon is that a young Siberian tiger escaped from its open habitat and mauled three young men. But one week later, the facts for the most part stop there. You see, no one who should be talking is talking. Crisis management plans, SF Zoo leadership and cooperation with authorities by the victims are nonexistent. However, speculation based on a few clues has everyone else coming forward to craft their own story. PR nightmare, tabloid dream.
Disgruntled employees are claiming they and the animals were treated badly by the Zoo Director, Manuel Mollinedo. They have told tales about overlooked issues – specifically the fact that Tatiana’s enclosure was almost four feet under regulation height for a Big Cat sanctuary. Mollinedo has remained relatively silent except for some finger pointing.
The Zoo societies and animal activists are all talking and pointing fingers as well. Local news programs hosted three “zoo expert”: interviews an hour, most of which were nowhere near the zoo that day, or affiliated with it at all. Most activists are blaming the probable taunts and misconduct of the youth and poor captivity conditions that drove the tiger to attack. After all, they found a footprint and blood over the railing at the cat enclosure. Flashback to OJ Simpson, and we know that proves nothing.
On the other side, the attack survivors refuse to talk. Their silence left people speculating, and the news media has been quick to point out that the surviving men have criminal records, and what neighbors call a troubled past.
That pretty much sums up my New Years conversations. During the tenth round of this I started wondering why we were all so wrapped up in the story. As a PR person I was enthralled with the issues of the crisis response (no one in the zoo at the time of the attack was notified of danger, and it was the police, not zoo personnel, who found and killed the cat), lack of communication (who is advising this guy at the zoo?) and concern about how quickly our stories began to become fact, in light of no real facts at all. One partygoer even claimed he had a drink with the cop who killed the cat. Stories like this will surely continue to come up for years.
I also wondered why we weren’t talking about Bhutto, the Dow dropping or the elections. But in fact, when I took a step back, we were. All of these are in some way about a cat cornered and probably pushed to lash out. Isn’t that what negative campaign ads are? Aren’t investors, scared by global unrest and mortgage woes, clawing their way out of the market? Is that where the term cat fight came from in the first place?
So maybe we are all a bit like Tatiana and a bit like the boys who probably taunted her. Maybe that is why the story seemed to overshadow our New Year’s resolutions. Or maybe – as is the case so many times – when no one is there to tell the story, we are left to our own devices to put together our own version of the truth.