The Zoo Blues

The animals are mistreated. The executive director is getting rich. Privatization has failed the San Francisco Zoo.

This story was first published May 19, 1999

IN EARLY 1997, the San Francisco Zoo had a serious public-relations problem. The zoo wanted San Francisco voters to approve a $48 million bond measure to overhaul the facilities. But the Asian elephant exhibit was making the zoo look bad.

Tinkerbelle the elephant had been living alone since April 1995, when her longtime companion, Pennie, was put to sleep. Animal activists had been complaining that, for an animal that herds and has complex social interactions in the wild, life alone was cruel and unacceptable. According to the minutes from a board meeting of the San Francisco Zoological Society, the private group that manages the zoo, executive director David Anderson decided it was time to find a friend for Tinkerbelle. He thought he found her in Calle.

Calle was about 30 years old and on exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. She had put in her time entertaining humans, working shows in Las Vegas and giving rides to kids at the San Diego Zoo. Animal advocates in Los Angeles were trying to get her to a sanctuary in Tennessee. But Anderson decided he wanted her in San Francisco.
Animal rights advocates hated the idea. Gretchen Wyler, executive director of Endocino-<\h>based Arc Trust came to San Francisco to check out the zoo's facilities. "I was devastated when I saw how small and barren it was," Wyler told the Bay Guardian.

S.F. Zoo curator David Robinett denies that the decision to move Calle to San Francisco had anything to do with the timing of the bond campaign. "We were anxious to move ahead and get a companion for Tinkerbelle," he told us.
Either way, the zoo was in a hurry — and it wound up with a huge problem on its hands. Before leaving Los Angeles, Calle was tested for tuberculosis. According to Susanne Barthell, who ran the Council for Excellence in Zoo Animal Management until her death last fall, the elephant population at the L.A. Zoo was known to have problems with T.B., a claim Robinett denies. But S.F. Zoo officials did not wait for the test results to come back before they brought Calle north on March 19, 1997.

The tests came back positive. The zoo had just bought a tuberculous elephant.

As soon as she arrived, Calle had to be quarantined from her new companion. And the financially troubled zoo got hit with elephantine medical bills. Calle's treatment would run from $60,000 to $65,000 a year, curator Robinett told the city's Commission of Animal Control and Welfare in July.

It got worse. In separating the elephants, zoo workers put Calle in the cushier exhibit quarters, which at least had some vegetation and a watering hole. Tinkerbelle was moved to neighboring quarters, without vegetation or water. She had to poke her trunk through a hole in the wall to refresh herself. (Only this month was the electrified barrier between the two areas removed permanently. Calle is cured, and the two elephants can now interact.)

The elephant debacle is all too typical. San Francisco's zoo has never been one of the country's best — but six years after it was placed in private hands, it's in worse shape than ever. Privatization was supposed to save the zoo; instead it has failed it. A Bay Guardian investigation based on interviews and documents shows:

* Dozens of animals live in squalid, substandard conditions: primates have died because of disease-<\h>ridden cages, orangutans are cooped up in tiny cement boxes, rare rainforest mammals are losing hair.

* The number of zoo employees charged with taking care of the animals has plummeted — while the number of other employees has doubled.

* The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so frustrated with the S.F.

Also from this author

  • Emeric Kalman, 1931-2008

    Tenacious in his activism, Kalman never walked away from an issue