It made international headlines: tiger attacks three visitors and kills one of them after escaping her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. What was it like to be on the Zoo board at that time? We are grateful to our friend for sharing his First Person Nonprofit experience and what he learned about boards:
How did you first hear about the attack?
It was Christmas night. It happened about 5:00 pm on Christmas Day. I was at home and it came across in an email about 5:30. Everyone started exchanging messages. My first reaction was sadness, deep sadness.
What exactly did happen at the Zoo?
It appears that the young men were actively provoking Tatiana; they did things they shouldn’t have done. It was hard to get out of her enclosure — she had to shear off her back claws to get out. She wasn’t on a rampage; she bypassed other people to get to these individuals.
Editor’s note: Tatiana, a 4-year-old Siberian Tiger, killed one 17-year-old and injured two other young men who seem to have been throwing things at her and taunting her. She was killed by police shortly after. It was later discovered that the grotto wall was approximately four feet shorter than standards. The zoo was closed for a week; a settlement was reached with the families of the victims.
How did the board react?
One good thing that happened was that it rallied the board. It’s a big board – nearly 60 members — and everybody threw themselves into the crisis. We were eager to help out. I was intensely sad, it also felt good to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the other board members.
While it was difficult, the board president did a good job of managing all the people who wanted to help.
It’s not obvious how board members could help in a situation like this.
Well, one thing was legal. We had lawyers on the board who assisted on a variety of legal issues raised by the incident. Board members also worked closely with Zoo management in meetings with City officials and other constituencies. The board reached out to major donors with phone calls and face-to-face meetings. We sought feedback from various groups, particularly Zoo employees.
I imagine there were some financial challenges for the board as well?
Yes, of course. Admissions and membership dropped. Events were cancelled. There were massive expenses that were out of the ordinary. The Zoo had to pay the crisis management team, legal fees, and the like.
But donors stepped up, too. One friend who had not been a donor gave us a large check because he knew we would have challenges. Similarly, another friend and regular donor, doubled his family’s support since he recognized the Zoo needed extra operating funds.
What’s been your biggest takeaway about boards?
In a crisis, people get energized and can put in extraordinary efforts such as late night meetings. And they get well-deserved praise for that. I’ve seen the same thing in my company. It’s like a surgeon coming in and cutting out the cancer: a lot of energy, a lot of drama, a lot of acclaim.
But being a good board member or executive is more like preventive medicine. Doing the long-term stuff that prevents problems. Making sure the infrastructure is funded. Looking for the slow time bombs that aren’t visible.
For example, for budgetary reasons, the Zoo had largely stopped participating in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) breeding programs. As a result, we had an aging animal population. This problem was recognized, and the Zoo again became active in these programs. And as result the animal age profile improved, and the Zoo was better able to promote its conservation mission.
Thank you for this story and especially for the point that being a good board member may be more like preventive medicine than like working in the ER: less dramatic but more sustainable.
More than 100,000 people visit the San Francisco Zoo each year, which is known as the birthplace of Koko the gorilla and the American bald eagle Stephen Colbert, Jr. This editor’s favorite exhibit features American bison, and was happy to learn recently that the Zoo was instrumental in bringing this species back to the prairies from the brink of extinction.