A scathing report shows how the privatized SF Zoo spent its bond money on tourist traps, not animals
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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. "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. A rescue zoo, as they describe it, would provide a new home for exotic animals once held by private owners in inhumane conditions. Zoo veterinarians and other staff already possessing experience treating sick animals would naturally fit into the new concept, and the zoo's past conservation efforts, like programs for eagles and wild cats, could be grandfathered in.
Deniz Bolbol, a co-coordinator of the Bay Areabased Citizens for Cruelty-Free Entertainment and supporter of the rescue zoo idea, describes the joint committee that oversees the zoo as a rubber stamp and says, "everything the zoo proposes is approved; everything is unanimous."
"The Board of Supervisors really needs to reform the zoo at its base," Bolbol said.
Lazarus opposes the idea of a rescue concept because he believes it won't generate enough revenue to keep the zoo self-sufficient. Sup. Sean Elsbernd, whose district includes the zoo, was also cool to the idea, saying no one has an idea of how much it might actually cost. Discussions at the board about how the $48 million in bond money was spent, in the meantime, would likely take a back seat to the lingering citywide $338 million budget deficit.
Besides, he said, the zoo's new Grizzly Gulch, where two bears that were close to being euthanized by Montana wildlife officials live, represents what the commission is asking for.
"In concept, it's a great idea," Elsbernd said. "In concept, I also support every street being repaved every year. But there's reality. There was no realism in their report that showed us how to achieve [a rescue zoo] in the means that we have."
The operating agreement between the Zoological Society and the city comes up for renewal in June.