In exchange, the society was supposed to take over the zoo and make it financially viable.
The society was not able to pull the zoo out of the red. In the spring of 1997, after four years of losing money, zoo officials admitted to acting parks director Joel Robinson that they were paying operating expenses with a loan of roughly $2.5 million from Wells Fargo as well as with money raised before the zoo went private. And in November of that year, Reading told the Rec and Park Commission that the marketing expenses for that fiscal quarter were over budget by $47,000. The society raised admissions prices in spring 1998 to cover an immediate $250,000 shortfall.
The society had already started going after an infusion of public funds. The minutes of society meetings show that for more than a year, the group devoted almost all its energy to getting a $48 million bond issue passed. According to the lease, the city agreed to sell at least $25 million in bonds to improve crumbling facilities. The society was supposed to raise $25 million from private funders by the time the bonds were sold. (To date, the society has raised $17 million.)
In June 1997, voters passed the $48 million bond issue. The zoo expected the bonds to start selling in late fall 1998, but they were delayed by a lawsuit seeking to overturn voter approval of the 49ers stadium bonds, which passed in the same election. That litigation was thrown out of court; the zoo bonds are expected to be sold this summer. The society has also taken $26 million from bonds issued for rebuilding after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
The city's Recreation and Park Department responded to the zoo's financial troubles by looking the other way. Rather than conduct an audit of the zoo or monitor the operation more closely, the department announced that it would no longer scrutinize the zoo's budgets at all (see "The Secret Zoo," 11/26/97, and "Don't Feed the Zoo Society," 12/10/97).
Rec and Park's former finance director Ernie Prindle, who had been checking the zoo's budgets until 1997, told the Bay Guardian that Anderson seemed to want the zoo to have the advantages of being run by a private organization while still being covered by a public one. When the zoo admitted in the fall of 1997 it was further in debt than it should have been, Anderson asked why the department could not just take care of the deficit and make the numbers work as it had done in the days when it was part of the city system, Prindle said.
"We had to tell him it does not work that way anymore, now that the zoo is a private contractor," Prindle said.
Carnival or classroom?
By the end of October 1998 the zoo was in the black for the first time since the society took it over. But with that success has come controversy. Instead of investing in the animals, the society has capitalized on theme rides, such as the merry-go-round, the Puffer Train, and the Tiger Express ride.
Amusement-park attractions and a pricey marketing campaign — costing the zoo almost $3 million from 1995 to 1998 — have brought more visitors to the zoo. That plus higher ticket prices means more money. And Anderson is certain that with this increased revenue, the zoo will ultimately be able to shed its carnival atmosphere and focus on its true mission: education to foster environmental activism among visitors.
But if environmental activism is Anderson's goal, he has a strange way of showing it. For example, when the zoo brought in a lorikeet exhibit in April 1998, it allowed its sponsors to place a display — a shiny Ford sports utility vehicle — near the site.
"If you're setting yourself out as an educator, then you've got to have a source of funds," Anderson told the Bay Guardian.
Some of Anderson's more straightforward forays into environmental education have had trouble. One of his pet conservation projects is the Madagascar Fauna Group, head<\h>quartered at the San Francisco Zoo.