The tiger that escaped its San Francisco Zoo pen on Christmas did more than just kill a San Jose teenager. It exposed gaps in oversight...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The tiger that escaped its San Francisco Zoo pen on Christmas did more than just kill a San Jose teenager. It exposed gaps in oversight, at the zoo and beyond.

How did no one notice until after the fatal mauling of Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, that the 350-pound predator’s pen walls were well short of industry standards?

The answer appears to lie in the weak mix of regulations and professional standards that govern the nation’s zoos, a system that rests on overwhelmed federal inspectors enforcing vague animal-welfare laws, and industry standards that are voluntary.

San Francisco Zoo officials defended their operation, saying inspectors who reviewed the zoo’s practices and facilities three years ago never noted concerns about the tiger pen. But they also acknowledged their own records overstated the height of its walls by 5 feet.

Ron Tilson, who oversees tiger management for the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), was baffled why neither his group’s inspectors nor the zoo would notice such a deficiency. With a wall only 12.5 feet high, he said “the tiger can almost stand up and reach it” and would have little difficulty escaping “with a little bit of a hop.”

But as Tilson noted, the AZA’s enclosure guidelines “have never been compulsory.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has the primary responsibility to regulate zoos and other animal exhibitors as part of the Animal Welfare Act. The agency can charge exhibitors with violations of the act; penalties can include license revocation or fines of up to $3,750 a day.

But the act itself is written more with humane treatment than public safety in mind. For one thing, it doesn’t specify caging dimensions for animals, whether they are tigers or rabbits, said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers. Instead, it provides general guidelines for the animal’s comfort, safety and security. The idea, he said, is to allow design flexibility.

The federal agency has only about 100 inspectors, and critics said those inspectors are overwhelmed with the responsibility for regulating more than 200 accredited zoos, thousands more roadside attractions, circuses and other private animal exhibitors.

In California, state law also governs the keeping of wild animals. However, the state exempts from its oversight zoos accredited by the AZA.

The AZA offers accreditation through a days-long review every five years by a committee of three or four volunteer curators, keepers and veterinarians from member organizations.

Critics said the system falls short. “The issue here is that it’s essentially industry self-regulation,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.