For example, rotting wooden structures in the primate center went unrepaired for years between inspections; wire mesh fences keeping the colobus monkeys from escaping the exhibit continued to rust for a year after the USDA-imposed deadline to fix them.
Indeed, records from the past three years show that the zoo was regularly blowing its USDA-imposed deadlines on fixing facilities.
"When you've been writing 'rust up' for 10 years, most people get the message," Koch told the Bay Guardian. "We're at the point where, if the zoo doesn't shape up, we might be forced to take an action against them. We can fine them up to $2,500 per violation."
"If we're looking at a monkey enclosure and we explain that a rusty enclosure is a problem and we note they also have rust at the zebra site, then the next time we come out, we don't want to see a rusty elephant enclosure," she said. "What becomes obvious is that either they don't care about complying or they have decided not to. When they're doing that, they're using us as a quality control agency. The impression is that they have no quality control themselves."
A 1993 incident involving an orangutan named Chewbacca sheds light on how zoo officials have tended to respond to agency involvement. Responding to an anonymous complaint, the USDA found that zoo officials had been planning to keep the 150-pound Chewbacca confined to a four-by-six-foot converted entryway for more than a year while they used his quarters to breed chimpanzees.
"From my perspective it appears that the project with the chimpanzees has been ill conceived," William DeHaven, a sector supervisor with the USDA, noted on Oct. 12 of that year. "If you do not have sufficient space to conduct a breeding program properly, we feel it should not be conducted at all."
USDA veterinary medical officer Richard Spira found Robinett to be uncooperative in dealing with the situation. "Incredibly, David Robinett took exception to my observation that the temporary night quarters were cramped at best," Spira wrote to Koch. "This ... is to give you a little taste of the double<\h>speak I'm getting at the zoo."
The zoo has been no quicker to respond to problems brought to its attention by private citizens. On January 23, 1997, Barthell complained to both the zoo and the USDA. Barthell, an outspoken critic of the zoo, reported that she had seen a herd of six blackbuck standing in a driving rainstorm with no shelter, not even a tree. She also noted that 12 kangaroo were soaked and huddling against a wall for protection, their shelters too small to protect them.
Robinett responded to her concerns in writing. “This is not atypical of antelope,” he wrote. “In fact, many species react to inclement weather by seeking open space rather than cover.” He also said the kangaroo shelters were fine.
The USDA didn't see it that way. The agency informed the zoo in February 1997 that shelter provided for both the blackbuck and the kangaroos was inadequate.
Robinett denied that the zoo has a cavalier attitude toward facilities problems.
"A lot of it is the age of the enclosures," Robinett told us. "It is also a problem of limited resources. When you're patching the patch of a patch — that's when there are problems."
He said that the zoo had to choose carefully how to spend its funds and that it gave the highest priority to the ones that officials there felt posed the greatest hazard to animals. And Wayne Reading, the society's chief financial officer, says the infrastructure improvements are well underway, funded by donations and bond revenues.
Private zoo, public funds
When the society assumed control of the zoo in 1993, it was on the verge of collapse. City officials had neglected at least $10 million in facility maintenance; the number of paying visitors was in decline.
According to the zoo society's lease, the city agreed to keep paying the zoo $4 million a year (to help cover the cost of civil service employees).