The new zoo blues - Page 2

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

"The Joint Zoo Committee and Recreation and Park Commission did not provide adequate oversight to ensure capital improvements made with bond money focused on animal enclosures and exhibits."

The report also points in part to a 1999 performance audit of the zoo conducted by San Francisco's respected budget analyst, Harvey Rose. The audit at that time argued that improving animal exhibits should come before building new gift shops and dining facilities, but that this recommendation was "not heeded," according to the commission.

"It was clear that none of that had been addressed," Mara Weiss, an animal welfare commissioner and veterinarian in the city, said of the 1999 audit.

Zoo officials received repeated invitations to attend recent commission meetings on the zoo, but they were mostly ignored. Weiss, however, acknowledged that the zoo was distracted by the tiger attack and resulting media circus.


Early this year, three zoo experts from abroad visited the San Francisco Zoo at the request of the group In Defense of Animals. Each sent a letter to the supervisors that decried the conditions in San Francisco. Robert Atkinson, a former Oxford University conservation, welfare researcher and one-time curator at the Woburn Safari Park in the United Kingdom, noted a failure "to adopt modern approaches to animal husbandry." Peter Stroud, a former zoo director from Australia, described the Black Rhinoceros exhibit as "utterly impoverished."

"It is in fact completely barren.... This exhibit conveys the general impression of a stock yard in which the interests of the animals are of no concern whatsoever," Stroud wrote.

The crown jewel of the zoo's animal habitations constructed using bond money, the African Savanna, was completed in 2004. It features giraffes, zebras, kudus — a species of antelope — and a bird aviary. But even that exhibit, the welfare commission argues, has problems.

"The new African Savanna exhibit was located in the most weather-exposed part of the zoo, and constructed without shelter or windbreaks for the warm-weather animals displayed there," the report states. "In fact, the most sheltered part of the African Savanna exhibit was designed for the human visitors, leaving the animals who live there exposed to the cold wind and fog off the ocean just across the street."

We tried to reach the zoo for comment, but an administrative assistant told us that spokesperson Paul Garcia recently left his job there and a replacement wasn't available for questions. Another spokesperson was out of town. We were told that Bob Jenkins, the zoo's director of animal care, might return our call but he never did.

Jim Lazarus, a former zoo executive and current rec and park commissioner, said the zoo had to devote significant funds to its entrance to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, he said, the cost of construction materials globally has ballooned since 1997.

"None of this money goes as far as originally thought with the worldwide demand for steel and concrete.... We need a multiyear plan, both in terms of priority construction and a capital campaign funding strategy, to complete the half of the zoo that hasn't been renovated and that should be our goal," Lazarus said. "It's a wonderful facility."

But future projects planned for the zoo appear to continue the emphasis on visitors. A wish list of projects from the zoo's 2007 master plan update includes adding new conference spaces and retail, improving areas for family activities, creating a 1,000-seat amphitheater, installing yet another new café, and possibly a full-service restaurant called Windows on the Pacific.

The commission, however, has proposed that the zoo become a haven for saving animals rather than simply exhibiting them for the enjoyment of people.

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