OPINION In San Francisco’s June 1997 special election, the swells convinced the voters to float $48 million in bonds to build a "world-class" zoo, which would entail largely privatizing a public institution, leaving the city on the hook for liabilities while giving a private nonprofit the benefits.
The initiative passed you can’t get warmer or fuzzier than a tiger or a koala and the San Francisco Zoo, relinquished to the tutelage of corporate fixer Jim Lazarus, was largely gifted as another privatized party space for the rich.
The case might be made that zoos can serve as genetic incubators in the face of widespread habitat destruction. But the city’s precautionary principle, like the Hippocratic oath, should prevail on us to do no harm in seeking to prevent extinction.
The record of the privatized Zoo has hardly been a story of precaution:
•In 2000, two already sick koalas were kidnapped from the Zoo and not returned for two days.
•A 12-year-old Siberian tiger, Emily, died in October 2004. Tatiana was just murdered at age four. Siberian tigers generally live to be 24 years old in captivity.
•Two elands, majestic African antelope, were introduced improperly into close quarters with an already resident eland at the Zoo, which led to a spate of deadly eland-on-eland violence and the deaths of the two newcomers.
•Apparently, shoddy attention to detail hastened the demise of Puddles the hippopotamus in May 2007. Hippos, like African elephants, thrive in nature preserves located in their native tropical habitat.
If zoos are to be a successful component of protecting endangered species, it’s paramount that their conditions not kill the specimens. Perhaps an affiliation with a major research institution is required to ensure that professionalism is the order of the day to ward against what appears to be amateur hour at the zoo.
It’s one thing for the swells to occupy public spaces such as the de Young Museum, City Hall, and the San Francisco Public Library as edifications to their egos only fellow humans are inconvenienced. But for the rich to wrap themselves in the distinction of being movers and shakers in the San Francisco Zoological Society and wring glee from the glow of imprisoning animals in inhospitable conditions is truly pathological.
The Zoo should be closed, its animals sent to facilities capable of caring for them, and the land used for affordable housing. The city should replace the Zoo with an academic partnership with legitimate wildlife sanctuaries around the world to subsidize conservation, produce video footage of animals in their natural habitats, and arrange trips to see wild animals in the wild for San Francisco youths who otherwise could not afford it.
That would be a true 21st-century, world-class approach to bringing the wonder of exotic animals to San Franciscans.
Marc Salomon is a member of the SF Green Party County Council.