Friday, November 27, 2015         

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City hires zoo director with an escape in record

The mayor stands by the selection despite a fatal tiger attack at the official's last zoo job

By B.J. Reyes


The former executive director of the San Francisco Zoo, who resigned after a tiger attack that killed a teenager there in 2007, has been named to head the Honolulu Zoo.

Manuel Mollinedo, who began his new job this week, was introduced yesterday by Mayor Peter Carlisle.

"Our zoo is incredibly important to our community, our children and our visitor industry, and I'm very confident that we are placing the care of our treasured animals in good hands," Carlisle said.

An independent selection panel of local business and civic leaders evaluated Mollinedo and seven other applicants. He was one of two finalists who was interviewed by city Enterprise Services Director Sidney Quintal, whose department oversees the zoo.

"He was measured for all-around expertise with regard to running a zoo," Quintal said.

He said the two discussed the tiger escape as well as an incident that occurred at the Honolulu Zoo a year later, in which a 245-pound male tiger escaped from an exhibit area and was separated from the public zoo grounds by only a 4-foot-high fence.

That incident lasted about 25 minutes and no one was injured.

"Fortunately for us, it wasn't as serious as the one that occurred in San Francisco, but these things happen," Quintal said. "After my discussions with Manuel, I was convinced that he did everything that was right with regard to managing that zoo and what happened was just very unfortunate."

Mollinedo led the San Francisco Zoo for four years, beginning in 2004, and won praise for improving the zoo's physical condition and financial situation.

But he and zoo staff were criticized after a 250-pound Siberian tiger escaped from its pen and killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. on Christmas Day 2007. The tiger also wounded brothers Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23.

It later was revealed that the perimeter wall of the tiger enclosure was 4 feet lower than recommended industry standards.

Mollinedo also was director of the Los Angeles Zoo during two notable incidents.

In 2001, a Komodo dragon bit off part of San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein's toe while he was on a private tour of the facility. In 1996, a 5-ton female elephant knocked down and stepped on an animal keeper, breaking his collarbone and bruising three ribs, according to published reports.

Carlisle said he stands by the selection process.

He said visitor attendance at the San Francisco Zoo grew to its highest point in 25 years when Mollinedo oversaw operations there. He said better management practices and increased donations improved the zoo's financial condition during Mollinedo's tenure.

The Honolulu Zoo attracts about 600,000 visitors a year and has an annual operating budget of about $8 million, Quintal said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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