We had protocol for the cats…. it was the VULTURES we neglected to train for!
On a quiet, routine Sunday morning my facility was smack dab in the middle of what every animal care organization dreads, an injury to a human by a tiger, in our case 2 tigers. During routine daily maintenance and cleaning, my husband Nick and our one actual employee entered the enclosure of two 5-year old tigers, to shift the ‘boys’ into their lock down and proceed with the chores at hand.
Instead of entering the lock down area, like these 2 cats had done routinely for 5 years, something went wrong, and Duke and Merlin ‘grabbed’ Kenny.
We practice and train and talk constantly here in an effort to be able to react and professionally handle any type of incident that we can possible fathom. Hoping that much of the training will never have to be utilized of course. Thank God we take what we do seriously. The training, experience, and professionalism of these two men are what kept an incident from becoming a tragedy.
Kenny, with his experience was able to react defensively, and Nick with his experience was able to react offensively. The entire episode, though it SEEMED to be forever, was, at our best guesstimate, a minute to a minute and a half. EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, PRACTICE AND ESTABLISHED PROTOCOLS ARE VITAL!!!!!!
When both men were safely outside of the enclosure, immediate implementation of our planned and practiced protocol for injury began. When we first began working with the Big Cats, we had agreed that in the event someone was ever hurt, we would immediately call for medical help. It was to be our policy that if anyone said ‘get medical help’ we would call 911right then.
No dilly-dallying, no questioning beyond the basic who’s hurt, are they breathing, blood loss amounts, and which cat was involved—that particular piece of information would also let whoever was making the call know what cage and what species.
Well, there began my first learning curve for what I’d do differently! Everything we had practiced for the actual problem went smooth as silk. At least as smooth as these types of things can go. We are ‘Big Cat’ people. But I now know from first hand experience that we also better learn to be PR pro’s as well!
When I called 911...I had all the basic information I needed to get a medical response team, what I didn’t have was a practiced and REHURSED to the point of ‘second nature’ statement (which is how we practice for the cats!!) for the 911 operator when I was asked “What it the nature of your emergency”
My response was my name, my location, and that my employee had some injuries from a tiger. She Asked, “You mean someone was attacked by a TIGER!” Apparently I responded “yes”. I now know that was a very bad move on my part! If we would have practiced THIS part of I crisis I would have had it drilled into my head to say ‘ No. There are some bites…. some wounds...some ANYTHING, but adamantly disallow the word ‘ATTACK’.
We all know who monitors the ensuing police, sheriff, emergency responders and ER crew on scanners…the media!!! a/k/a THE VULTURES! And so what follows next is always a real live feeding frenzy.
Let the PROBLEMS begin……...
Before the ambulance was out of the gate there were 3 messages on the phone with media requests, and they multiplied and they multiplied and they multiplied. “Journalists” (a phrase used loosely and only because if this accounting circulates I’ve got enough problems without being sued for ’slander’ of a profession!!) could taste a TABLOID EVENT!
LESSON NUMBER 2. . .
Just about all of us run ‘grass root’ operations, with no media wizards, no statement writers, and no PR staff. Take the time to write, or have written, a press release in general terms for any type of situation that may call media attention. One for ‘escape’, one for ‘injury’, one for anything you can think of that could possible send the birds of prey swooping down on your door step. Have e-mail addresses and fax numbers handy and find someone ...anyone to send them out.
I didn’t do that. First off, I had about a gazillion things running through my mind that I had to get done, and frankly making sure our employee was as alright as we thought he was, was number one on my list. Next on the ‘to do’ list was notify and report to our local CDOW guys ourselves. Then notify and report to our USDA inspector ourselves. I would suggest these 2 things be done without hesitation or delay after the situation is secured and under control. You don’t want these governing agencies finding out by reading the morning paper.
Notify volunteers that there is about to be a media blitz and tell them what really happened. Contact someone you trust in the ‘cat world’ with facts...not only can they decipher through compassion and understanding what you are ‘blithering’ about, you need the cat community to get 1st hand information as fast as possible. Especially with the present climate swirling around exotics.
And last, but not least...take some deep breaths. The world is gonna feel like it’s crashing in on you, and the press is gonna do its damnedest to get in a least a few sucker punches.
Speculation ran rampant and several reports had all ready run before Nick and I even got to the hospital later in the afternoon. By then we had decided we weren’t going to talk at all for a few days. The press, with all their valor, had within hours already made up a story for themselves. Frankly, this decision was also based on my inane ability to get irritated and end up being quoted using the ONE phrase I would rather have not said :)
Most of you have read the stories. It’s amazing what ’creative license’ allows some people to report as fact. To clear up a few of the doozies reported on our incident. We do not enter cages to feed the tigers; furthermore, we don’t feed in the morning in the summer time with temperatures in the 90’s.
Kenny was NOT in the cage alone. And the animals were being ‘shifted’. Kenny did not loose any body parts, nor was he ever in critical condition. Conscious, alert and coherent at all times, he and Nick talked through the whole ordeal (no I wont give you quotes, use your imagination for what that conversation entailed). This happened on a Sunday; Kenny was home on Wednesday evening.
Knowing we had to eventually say something and after we had all given ourselves some room to breath, I spoke with several reporters…. and didn’t give them ONE PIECE OF INFORMATION. I gave CONDITIONS. Also by then I had had time to stick my nose into every PR, media relations, and crisis management book I own!!!!
Lots of folks didn’t want to do an interview my way...and by then I had nothing to loose so it was going to be my way or no way! The first reporter to show some heart and compassion and to swear to cover more about this facility than the accident...got to come in. In return for HER word...I promised an exclusive, and she had to also promise not to let any of the vultures in the gate with her.
She did a very decent story. In fact it is the only story listed on our web site under "click here for accurate news." Keep in mind she is the only print reporter that spoke to us...amazing what happens when a newsperson actually has some facts.
A week after that, we did an on-site story with a local station. They too promised it would be positive and used to clear up rumors. It did. And I think it came across clearly that no liars in the press corps would ever gain access to this facility. May not be the way a lot of those PR pro’s would play it, but it worked for us.
The rumor and gossip mills will always find a way to twist the stories to suit their style and agenda’s. On any given day we can only hope that with careful choices we may be able to get at least one or two honest stories out there. I know I’ve had quite a few calls now from reporters saying they agree it should have been handled differently. My response has been simple: I’ll follow your work and if your actions prove your words, I MAY trust you another day.
In the end, and with hindsight being as magical as it is, I guess the best advice I can give is while we all practice (or least we all should practice) for an emergency as a ‘unit’ we need to also practice for the aftermath, for often that is where the true crisis lies. No longer will I sit in my comfort zone as just a Big Cat person…. for them I will add to my responsibility’s learning & PRACTICING the art of PR crisis management. I urge everyone to devote at least some time and training to the same. Wishing safety, purrs, chuffs and lion songs to your world.
Karen & the gang at Big Cats of Serenity Springs.
ps...I know there are questions. As I said in the ‘accurate’ news report, the time required working with our heads now and dealing with our hearts latter. We haven’t had a chance to get our hearts in order...I do know a piece is gone. Perhaps some day...when just a name or a particular tone in a chuff doesn’t bring tears and sorrow and that terrible ache inside, I’ll cover that too. Let there be NO doubt…. we LOVED them dearly.
xooxoxox for our boys
Excellent Reference books to have:
Crisis management for zoo's and other animal care facilities (I don't have the publisher for this one but it’s the AZA/AZAK one)
MediaSmart how to handle a reporter by a reporter by Dennis Stauffer published by MinneApple Press isbn # 0-9640429-0-8
The PR Crisis Bible how to take charge of the media when all hell breaks loose by Robin Cook published by St Martins press isbn # 0-312-25230-7
Guerrilla PR wired by Michael Levine published by Mcgraw-Hill isbn #0-07-138231-3
Successful Spokespersons are made not born by Hal Hart isbn # 1-58721-366-4
All available on Amazon.com
Many thanks to Karen Sculac of Big Cats of Serenety Springs, for allowing the use of this article on ExoticCatz.com.com in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2003 by Karen Sculac, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.