The new zoo blues

A scathing report shows how the privatized SF Zoo spent its bond money on tourist traps, not animals

Ten years ago, the San Francisco Zoo asked voters for $48 million in bonds to overhaul its decaying animal enclosures, rebuild its entrance, expand educational facilities for children, and make a host of other improvements.

Every major figure in San Francisco with even an ounce of political ambition made sure his or her name was attached to the voter information pamphlet that went out to residents in 1997 urging passage of the bonds.

The list included Willie Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi; members of the community college and school boards; the district attorney and city attorney then in office; Republican judges and local chambers of commerce; and countless grade school teachers.

The entire board of supervisors signed on, declaring that the improvements would "include new habitats where many of the animals will experience grass under their feet for the first time."

Prop. C passed, and the private San Francisco Zoological Society, which had taken control of the zoo from the city five years before, was on its way to introducing real live sod to exotic animal species. Just like a sanctuary, or even the wild itself.

But it hasn't quite turned out like the pretty pictures suggested.

On March 18, the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission quietly released a report that made it clear many of the promises of that bond campaign were never kept. The private zoo didn't spend the money the way all of those giddy city officials had told the voters it would.

The report was largely overlooked because on the same day the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which inspects San Francisco's zoo for accreditation, released its own long-anticipated investigation of what happened at Christmastime when a hulking Siberian tiger named Tatiana mauled three people, killing one.

That attack, as we all know now from the relentless headlines, is the sexier story. But the commission, in a document with much greater long-term implications, said that only two significant new exhibits were built using the bond money — the African Savannah and the Lemur Forest, completed in 2004 and 2002 respectively.

A scheduled $13.4 million Great Ape Forest was deferred from the list of projects. The zoo promised that project would "remain a fundraising goal for the SF Zoological Society," according to an update on the bond expenditures presented to the public in 2005. Orangutan and chimpanzee exhibits scheduled for improvement with the bond money were cancelled, the commission said, and the lone hippo was moved to an "arguably worse exhibit."


Besides a new exhibit for grizzlies, habitations for the other bears "have not undergone any meaningful renovation," according to the commission.

And while the zoo spent the last decade downgrading projects promised to voters from the construction of new exhibits to the mere renovation of existing ones, others targeting the feel-good sensibilities of patrons that had little to do with actually caring for animals were completed as swiftly as possible.

The zoo's miniature train system, "Little Puffer," was fully restored with $700,000 worth of private funds in 1998. A $4 million education center, which doesn't actively house animals, was completed in 2001 using the bond money. A new entryway, improved streetscapes, parking, and a restaurant costing $20 million, which came largely from the zoo bonds, were completed two years late and $10 million over budget in 2002.

The renovation of an amusement ride for kids — the historic Dentzel Carousel — was also finished that year at a cost of more than $1 million. (Restorers spent almost 1,000 hours on each fake animal, according to the zoo's Web site.)

"It's evident that capital improvements from the bond measure focused on visitor amenities, not improvements for the animals," the report states.

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