The zoo at City Hall

Hearings explore the deadly tiger attack and its ramifications

City Hall looked like feeding time at a popular new zoo exhibit on the morning of Jan. 11. Hundreds of people spilled from a cramped fourth-floor hearing room. The aisles bristled with television cameras and microphones. But the only animals on display were officials of the privately managed San Francisco Zoo.

A little more than two weeks after a Siberian tiger escaped her undersized enclosure before killing a young man and badly injuring two of his companions, the Recreation and Park Commission and the Joint Zoo Committee summoned Zoo management to discuss the tragedy. But after hours of staff presentations and public testimony, many in attendance doubted whether the same public officials and private managers who failed to prevent the grisly Christmas Day mauling should be trusted to point the correct way forward.

"To have Rec and Park and the Joint Zoo Committee hold the hearing is inappropriate at best," animal welfare activist Deniz Bolbol told the Guardian after the meeting adjourned. "This is the same committee that has basically rubber-stamped every management arrangement at the Zoo for the last 14, 15 years."

In 1993 the city handed over control of the Zoo to the private San Francisco Zoological Society but retained ownership of the property and the animals housed there. The makeup of the Joint Zoo Committee, which is charged with overseeing the society's management, reflects this hybridized public-private arrangement. Three members of the city's Recreation and Park Commission sit on the body, as do three members of the Zoological Society's board of directors. According to Bolbol and other critics, the committee gives the private Zoo managers too long a leash.

"It's a joke," Bolbol charged, "because basically, you're asking them to self-regulate. You go to their meetings and there's never one dissenting voice. Anytime anyone in the public says anything critical, they just sweep it under the rug."

The main argument for Zoo privatization was a lack of city money for needed improvements. And without a doubt, the Zoological Society has raised lots of cash since it took over. In addition to the $4 million dollars per year it receives from city taxpayers, the society waged a successful ballot campaign in 1997 for nearly $50 million in public bond money and has raised almost that much in private donations. But controversy surrounds how these windfalls have been spent and how the Zoo's private management has decided to operate the facility.

Past Guardian investigations turned up disturbing cases of animal suffering and lax safety standards (see "The Zoo Blues," 5/19/99, and "The Zoo's Losers," 5/7/2003) on the society's watch. Many animals have died of diseases associated with unclean living conditions and cramped quarters. The same Siberian tiger that escaped her outdoor grotto enclosure and killed the young man Christmas Day mangled a keeper's arm in late 2006. And last week's cover story, "Tiger Tales," uncovered accounts of past tiger escapes from the same grotto.

Nick Podell, chair of the society's board of directors, makes no apologies for his organization's focus on the bottom line. "The primary function of the board is the raising of capital," he told us at the Friday hearing, adding, "We rely heavily on professional management for day-to-day operations."

When we asked Podell whether Zoo manager Manuel Mollinedo, who reportedly makes more than $330,000 per year, conducted a review of the outdoor grotto enclosure in the wake of the 2006 attack, Podell fiercely defended Mollinedo but declined to comment directly, citing "active litigation." Shortly after the Christmas Day incident, Mollinedo acknowledged publicly that the grotto's walls were more than four feet lower than national standards.

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