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The Emily Smart and Helen Dunne consider how ZSL London Zoo coped with the untimely death of its first tiger cub in 17 years

Elation over the birth of the first tiger cub at ZSL London Zoo in 17 years turned to tears after its tragic death just two weeks later, and the communications team had to throw out its planned Operation Tiny Paws' strategy and create a crisis response plan overnight.

Emma Edwards, head of communications at Zoological Society of London, explains: 'We have a crisis plan in place to handle the deaths of animals, and the first part states that the communications team is alerted almost immediately to anything that has happened.'

News that Sumatran tiger Melati was pregnant with partner Jae Jae's baby had been kept quiet from the public throughout her four month gestation and for 11 days after the cub was successfully delivered.

Edwards explains: 'Zoo pregnancies and births can be tricky so, where we can, we prefer not to announce them until we know they have been successful. As it was Melati's first pregnancy, we were aware that she may lose the cub or possibly not understand it.'

The decision was then taken to leave Melati and her cub, which was yet to be named, together in the Sumatran tiger's usual habitat rather than lock them in the more controlled environment of her den. Very few animals are now hand-reared or bottle fed by the keepers. It seems that, at some point, Melati took her cub outside her den, where it fell into the water and drowned.

'The more you try to create an environment like the wild, the more the risks are there. You have to let the animals be parents and deal with the consequences. They will make mistakes,' explains Edwards. 'Cubs do drown in the wild. But we were aware that we could be criticised for our decision.'

A key factor in the zoo's decision was Melati's disposition. 'We had not really talked before about how nervous she is. When she arrived, Melati took a long time to settle in. The only way I can describe her attitude was like a cat in a huff,' explains Edwards. 'We discovered that she likes routine, and doesn't like change. We were keen that she shouldn't be upset.'

The birth of the cub had been captured on infrared cameras installed in the den shortly after it was discovered that Melati was pregnant. The video of Melati giving birth reached more than 62,500 views on YouTube within five days of the announcement, which had prompted more than 4,400 tweets using the hashtag #tigercub.

The cameras were turned off when the cub was discovered and, until the formal announcement of its death was made two days later, zoo keepers told any visitors that footage was unavailable, while any signage about the cub was quietly removed. 'It was a Sunday and it rained all day, so it was not a huge problem,' explains Edwards.

The following day, at 9am, ZSL London Zoo's crisis team met for a debrief on the situation and to discuss the next steps. There are three aspects of communications at the zoo - site communications, press, and web and social media. 'We had to discuss which channel was best to communicate the news,' explains Edwards. 'We started out by working out the best possible story that could appear in the press, the best case scenario, and worked out how and when we could achieve that.'

The crisis team was also aware of their responsibility to more than 10,000 members of the zoo, who take a keen interest in its activities, and might notice the removal of site communications about the tiger cub.

'We also sent an email to staff informing them that the cub had drowned, and explaining about how to communicate that information to visitors. We reminded them, not that they really need it, that there may be children in family groups who might get distressed by the news. We wanted to make sure that everybody was really clear about what had happened.'

The communications team also considered their existing relationships with journalists. 'We wanted to go to our warmest press contacts first and to have a dialogue with them rather than sending out a press release,' explains Edwards. 'We selected a contact at The Guardian, who used to volunteer at the zoo and who would understand some of what we were telling her. When that article was published, we contacted other news outlets. But the tone was set by the first piece, which was sympathetic towards our keepers.'

ZSL London Zoo also sent the news by email to its members to coincide with the publication of the article, to ensure that they did not read it for the first time in their morning papers. (The zoo had tested this approach for the first time, when it sent news of the tiger cub's birth to members via email at exactly the moment that the press embargo was lifted. Edwards states: 'We got great feedback on this; it really made our members feel valued.')

The reaction on Twitter to news of the cub's death was '95 per cent sympathetic and five per cent critical', adds Edwards. 'Today's audience is sophisticated. They see a situation for what it is. We feel that they make their opinions based on all the information we provide. They know that we don't have a cover up strategy. We are very transparent. There was a lot of mistrust around zoos in the 1980s, because they held their cards close to their chests.'

Three years ago, a documentary team filming a 'behind-the-scenes at London Zoo' series captured the death of a young male gorilla Yeboah. 'The documentary showed the gorilla becoming ill and dying. Zoos used to be paranoid about issues like that, but people are sophisticated enough to understand these things,' says Edwards.

Life and death is 'sort of part and parcel of a zoo's press office', she says, adding that all the work on Operation Tiny Paws has been 'resigned to the bin', including video footage of Melati and her cub in the days after the birth. 'It is not appropriate to issue that now.'

But the work, which involved creating a series of press releases for a range of possibilities around the birth, will not be wasted. 'Melati will breed again,' says Edwards. 'She is already calling to him [Jae Jae] and they need to be together and let nature take its course.'

Melati is expected to fall pregnant within the next few months and, on that occasion, have a larger litter which reduces the potential for disaster. 'Two or three cubs are about normal', says Edwards. 'It was really unusual for the mother to take the cub outside after just two and a half weeks, but if she has two or three cubs she wouldn't have attempted to do so.'

The cameras installed to record Melati's pregnancy and the moment she gave birth are still in place, allowing keepers an intimate view of her recovery. But decisions surrounding any further pregnancy are still being made. 'The animal team is reviewing the enclosure, and is considering the options for draining the pool, covering it or giving [Melati] access to a different location,' says Edwards. The next time around, Operation Tiny Paws should have a happier ending.

 

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