The zoo at City Hall

Pub date January 16, 2008
WriterJ.B. Powell


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. Nonetheless, Podell told us he believes the director "is being railroaded and lynched."

But critics of the privatization deal have renewed calls for greater scrutiny. "I’ve always been skeptical of this public-private arrangement," Sup. Tom Ammiano told the Guardian by phone. "[Zoological Society leaders] look at what makes a profit first. In itself, that’s not bad, but what are you sacrificing with that?"

City taxpayers will most likely sacrifice plenty in lawsuit awards and legal bills. Within a week of the Christmas Day debacle, the surviving victims hired celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos. City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his staff have already spent numerous billable hours jousting with Geragos in a high-profile spate over potential evidence. During the public hearing, Herrera and Geragos were down the street in Superior Court arguing over whether the city can search the victims’ car and their cell phones. As Ammiano put it, "This whole thing is probably going to be in lawyer land for a good while to come."

In the end, the privatization of the Zoo — hailed by advocates as the best way to bring needed funds to the facility — could very well cost taxpayers even more than expected. Indemnification clauses in the Zoo contract ostensibly absolve San Francisco of any legal jeopardy, but a separate clause clearly states that the city is liable for any "preexisting conditions." The grotto breached by the tiger on Christmas Day is almost 70 years old.

Officials won’t speak on the record about potential city liability, but they privately say they won’t be surprised if there are legal battles between the society and San Francisco over who has to pay the victims. Further blurring the line between the public and the private sector, the society has retained the services of former city attorney Louise Renne — the very person who negotiated the original lease agreement on behalf of the city. At the hearing, she told us she did not expect any problems between her former boss, the city, and her new client, the Zoo. "But to tell you the truth," she added with a smile, "I haven’t even looked at [the agreement] in years."

Sup. Sean Elsbernd, whose district includes the Zoo, voiced support for keeping the facility in private hands. But he did pledge that "if it comes down to a question of whether the city will pay for anything [the Zoological Society] did negligently, we will not…. They will pay for their negligence if negligence is found." Elsbernd has scheduled a hearing on the Zoo’s woes for Jan. 28 before the Government and Oversight Committee, which he chairs, while Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has called for a hearing by the Budget Committee.

Ammiano told us, "The history of the Zoo has been controversial, especially since [privatization], and we just need to be brutally honest about everything."