Among other things, the group supports the protection of Madasgascar's Betampona National Reserve and hopes to re-introduce zoo-bred lemurs and other endangered primates, such as aye-ayes, to the island nation's wilds.
Since 1994, when the society assumed control of the zoo, it has spent $785,222 on its Madagascar projects.
In August 1997 Anderson brought two aye-ayes from Duke University's primate center to San Francisco. Merlin and Calaban are the only male-female aye-aye pair in any zoo in the United States. Zoo officials hope to breed them.
Anderson speaks proudly of the work the zoo has done to educate people in Madagascar about protecting aye-ayes. But he hasn't done such a great job protecting the ones in his care.
In Madagascar, aye-ayes spend time more than 60 feet high in the rainforest canopy, where they pull bugs from trees with their long fingers. In San Francisco, they live in an eight-foot-tall glass case.
Male aye-aye Merlin has had an ongoing problem with hair loss on his hind legs. As a result the zoo's vet put him on steroids periodically from 1997 to 1998. Zoo officials blame the hair loss on two factors: premature separation from his mother, which took place while Merlin was at Duke, and the stress of being introduced to a new female.
Anderson told the Bay Guardian the hair loss wasn't a big deal; some activists feel differently.
"That's a shame," Shirley McGreal, director of the International Primate Protection League, located in South Carolina, told the Bay Guardian. "Those guys cover a good distance of territory in the wild."
But the aye-ayes haven't been a huge success with zoogoers either. Aye-ayes are nocturnal creatures and extremely timid; Merlin and his mate, Calaban, rarely leave the shelter of leafy branches. The best chance you'll get to see an aye-aye at the zoo is in the gift shop, on a sweatshirt or a postcard.
Paying the price
Luckily for the society, hardly any of its donors know about how the zoo animals live; it's hard to woo grants with rusty fences, feces-filled cages, and cramped cement cells. But one funder did find out.
In September 1994, the zoo announced the opening of its $2 million Feline Conservation Center. Keepers had already raised questions about the new facility; some thought it was unsafe for the keepers because the animals could reach through the fence to the service area with their paws and claws.
When zoo administrators brought in Denver Zoo curator John Wortman, he had the same concerns. In his final evaluation to the Zoo Society, written in October 1994, Wortman stated, "I hate to sound like a broken record, but the old safety issue rises again. The repairs should have been made prior to the felines moving unto the enclosures. Fortunately, enough of the lock system functioned and no person or creature was hurt during the shake-down period."
The keeper at the time, Terry Moyles, was fired by the zoo March 1995. Barthell and other animal advocates suspected he was dismissed because he was outspoken about the inadequacy of the facility; Robinett denied the charge.
In a Jan. 30, 1995, letter to the charitable foundation that was funding the center, Wortman described the Feline Conservation Center as "a poor design and dangerous exhibit for both the animals and the zoo keepers."
The center's problems got its funders' attention. In a Feb. 19, 1999, letter to city auditor Jones, executives from the Redmond, Wash.–based Leonard X. Bosack and Betty M. Kruger Charitable Foundation blasted the zoo.
After the foundation made initial grants of more than $200,000 for the center, the letter states, "the Foundation Board also pledged two payments of $162,000 to be made in 1994 and 1995 contingent on continued progress reports.