Volume 42 Number 15

January 9 – January 15, 2008

  • No categories

J-pop sucker punch


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Visceral reactions are the last thing one might expect from the perversely brilliant "© Murakami," Takashi Murakami’s well-publicized survey exhibition at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. The telling copyright symbol that precedes the artist’s name in the exhibition title fits the cool, post-Warholian corporate-style control he exerts over his art and his identity. The Japanese but globally recognized artist is the kingpin of tweaked J-pop, a genre associated with plastic Hello Kitty cute, and he’s the CEO of his own brand and studio-factory, Kaikai Kiki Co., from which he produces his paintings, sculptures, products, and films, as well as promotes other Japanese artists who work in the manga-inspired vein he has dubbed Super Flat.

Yet despite the surface gloss in the sprawling exhibition of nearly 100 works — and throngs of viewers — I repeatedly experienced powerful gut reactions to a spectacle that is less interesting for any specific painting, sculpture, or animation than for functioning in totality as a well-burnished plastic mirror of a world driven by glittering global capitalism. The overall picture, not to mention the feeling that accompanies it, is surprisingly haunting.

I first felt the kick in a room wallpapered with Murakami’s densely patterned 2003 Flower (Superflat) and fitted with equally floral paintings and a plastic spherical sculpture. The deceptively cheerful motif is smiley face rams flower power, their collision erupting in fields of multicolored daisies with superwide grins. The room’s bright shades and perky promises are totally alluring — for about 30 seconds. Then it’s apparent these are more carnivorous plants than Todd Oldham–designed FTD bouquets. The sheer force of all of that glee hits you with the psychic equivalent of an ate-all-your-Halloween-candy stomachache. It’s potently repellent in a way that signals effective, not necessarily likable art making. As with the überfriendly, consumerist sculptures of Jeff Koons — an artist Murakami cites as an influence — viewers experience either love or hate and often neglect to note the power of the feeling.

Murakami, though, is more familiar to and apparently adored by a broad audience that doesn’t ordinarily imbibe contemporary art, his popularity perhaps due to the mass production of many of his objects and images, which are available internationally in Louis Vuitton shops, knockoff stalls, and affordable, hip outlets such as Giant Robot. Nearly 16,000 people saw the show in its first week, a record that prompted MOCA to craft a media release touting the stars of film and fashion who attended the opening festivities: Angelica Huston, Casey Affleck, Christina Ricci, Cindy Crawford, Courtney Love, Dita Von Teese, Naomi Campbell, Ellen DeGeneres, and Portia de Rossi. There were artists in the house as well — Ed Ruscha and Robert Graham are the only ones listed in the release — but the celebrity roster does much to tip Murakami’s balance of high and low culture to sea level.

I experienced a second and more powerful gut reaction, a true frisson, inside the show’s infamous, fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique, a project leveraging Murakami’s successful multicolore collaboration with the luxury brand. Perched on a mezzanine above the cartoon mushroom sculptures and a giant metal Murakami self-portrait as a stylized Buddha, the shop is a gleaming white box with projected designs animating its exterior, an object positioned inside the show as a participatory installation. That is, you have to pay museum admission to enter the establishment. And once I did, I felt a sense of the uncanny. Bathed in the fluorescence of display case light, I found myself in an alternate universe where people happily, without a shred of irony, shelled out nearly a grand for handbags of a new Murakami LV design available exclusively at MOCA, inspiring international shoppers to make a trip to an art museum for their label fix. This brilliant gesture makes viewers complicit in the act of fervent consumption. Like it or not, we are the subject, the Duchampian readymades, in this setting, and the conceit works brilliantly.

We may view the consumer frenzy as Western, but according to reporter Dana Thomas’s luxury-brand exposé, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (Penguin, 2007), nearly 40 percent of Japanese citizens own a Vuitton product, for complex reasons: "By wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos, the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores. It’s as if they are branding themselves." The latter sentiment perfectly pegs the "©" before Murakami’s name in this exhibit’s title, but the former points to the superficial Nipponphilia that has stateside audiences lapping up his art’s toylike qualities without always noting his references to Japan’s cultural context: Murakami’s work has much to do with a postwar condition of defeat and a subsequent sense of infantilism due to the United States military presence. Shopping is a component of that complicated mix, as well as a global phenomenon.

Elsewhere hipsters with various incomes and more manga-fied tastes were equally implicated in shopping as they formed a queue to enter the lower-priced former bookstore heaped with more affordable but equally coveted Murakami brand items. Many of the T-shirts, toys, etc., are also displayed in spotlighted niches in a dimly lit installation in the show, a room that plays like a mausoleum for discontinued tchotchkes. It is a solemn space at odds with the toyness of most of the objects inside.

Murakami cooked up more corporeal pop for yet another space: a screening room carpeted with a characteristic motif where the packed house of adults sat like kids ready for cartoons. Three films were shown, including the animated video for Kanye West’s "Good Morning," off Graduation (Roc-A-Fella, 2007), and an odd clip from an in-production live-action feature about an impotent gangster. Most memorable, though, was the first in a series of animated adventures of the Murakami characters Kai Kai and Kiki in which the screeching childlike creatures zip through a narrative involving watermelons the size of planets and human shit that makes them grow. Everyone poops, Murakami duly notes, and everyone buys. Like it or not, he captures our basic instincts and biological imperatives with surprising truthfulness. Bring your wallet.


Through Feb. 11, $5–$8

Mon. and Fri., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Geffen Contemporary

Museum of Contemporary Art

152 N. Central, Los Angeles


Shut down the zoo


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

Marc Salomon is a member of the SF Green Party County Council.

Money for parks


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY A broad coalition of politicians and activists is supporting Proposition A, the $185 million parks bond on the February ballot, with the rare unanimous support of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom.

But just how big an impact can this bond, which requires 66 percent voter approval, make? The city has spent the $110 million bond that voters approved in 2000 to repair parks and recreation centers, and an independent 2007 analysis identified $1.7 billion in backlogged park needs.

"This is one of an ongoing series of measures that we need to do every five or so years," board president Aaron Peskin told the Guardian.

The bond allocates $117.4 million for repairs and renovations of 12 neighborhood parks that were selected, Recreation and Park Department director Yomi Agunbiade told us, according to seismic and physical safety needs and usage levels.

The bond also earmarks $11.4 million to replace and repair freestanding restrooms. Noting that his department added 35 custodians in the last budget cycle, Agunbiade said, "So when we fix a bathroom, we’ll have staff to keep it open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week."

Some aren’t keen on the bond’s inclusion of $33.5 million for Port of San Francisco land projects, including the Blue Greenway, a continuous walkway from Heron’s Head Park to Pier 43. San Francisco Community College trustee and Sierra Club member John Rizzo supports the measure but raised concerns about projects on Port land, particularly improvements at Fisherman’s Wharf.

But Peskin sees the Port lands inclusion as overdue: "For the first time there’s the recognition that the Port should not be treated as a stand-alone enterprise that has to do everything itself." As for the improvements around Pier 43, which is in his district, Peskin said, "Fisherman’s Wharf, like Union Square, is one of those geese that lay the golden egg" in terms of revenue from tourism.

The bond also earmarks $8 million for improvements to playing fields. Agunbiade said many fields are in terrible shape and in desperate need of work, "but this bond only affects about 7 percent of the city’s park land."

Some Potrero Hill neighbors are sounding environmental alarms about plans to install artificial turf at their local recreation center, but Agunbiade said there are also environmental benefits to turf, including decreased water and pesticide use.

Arthur Feinstein of the Sierra Club and San Francisco Tomorrow told us he strongly supports Prop. A, largely because it earmarks $5 million for trail restoration.

"The evidence is not in on the ill effects of artificial turf," Feinstein said, "but its ability to be in constant use frees up land for other uses, such as trail reconstruction, which makes a huge difference not just for native species and plants but people too, who need nature, especially in densely urban areas."

Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, says her nonprofit supports Prop. A, and she cited its inclusion of $5 million for an Opportunity Fund from which all neighborhoods can apply for matching funds for small park projects.

"A lot of little parks are not on the list because the capital costs of seismic repairs are so great, so how do you even get a bench or a toilet? Why not leverage money?" Wade said, observing that in-kind contributions, sweat equity, and noncity funds can be matched by the Opportunity Fund.

The bond includes $4 million for park forestry, along with $185,000 to do bond audits. This last item didn’t quell the objections of the San Francisco Taxpayers Union, a small group of conservative real estate interests that filed the sole opposition argument to Prop. A, courtesy of Barbara Meskunas, former legislative aide of suspended supervisor Ed Jew.

"Prop. A is a jobs program disguised as a parks bond," Meskunas wrote, also arguing the 2000 park bond money wasn’t properly spent. "The Parks Dept. needs new management, not new tax money."

But Peskin said this opposition from conservatives is unsurprising: "The Taxpayers Union opposes every tax and bond. They have never wanted to pay their fair share."

Learn what the measure would do for the eastern waterfront by bicycling the Blue Greenway on Jan. 13 with Prop. A supporters starting at 10 a.m. at Heron’s Head Park on Hunters Point and finishing at noon at Fisherman’s Wharf. For more info, call (415) 240-4150.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Sneak attack on public power


EDITORIAL This is Mayor Gavin Newsom’s idea of shaking up his administration: fire a Public Utilities Commission director who has been doing a pretty decent job, then replace her with a city controller who has been pretty good at his job but will most likely be terrible at hers. The result should please nobody but Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

We’ve had our concerns about PUC director Susan Leal; she’s been tiptoeing oh-so-cautiously around public power when she ought to be leading the charge to kick PG&E and its illegal monopoly out of town. But at least she’s moving in the right direction, generally — and the fact that PG&E wants to get rid of her is a sign that she’s the kind of person the city ought to have at the helm of this crucial agency.

The logic of firing Leal makes so little sense. She has little more than a year left on her contract, and to pay her mandatory severance will cost the city $500,000, which the treasury can ill afford. And Newsom hasn’t pointed to anything she’s done wrong.

But city hall insiders say PG&E thinks she’s too aggressive about public power, and the giant utility can’t tolerate that. So Newsom quietly announced Friday afternoon, Jan. 4, that she was going to be replaced.

Of course, Newsom technically can’t fire the PUC general manager — only the commission can do that. And under the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, the mayor can’t call them all and seal the deal; the commissioners have to hold a meeting and talk about it. That meeting ought to be open to the public. The commissioners will try to close the doors, arguing that the general manager’s future is a confidential personnel matter — but that privilege exists to protect the employee, not the commissioners, and Leal has every right to waive it. She should fight back here, demand that the panel meet openly and discuss in public why she is being dismissed — and take the opportunity to challenge any claims against her and to make her case both for public power and for her continued employment.

This is far more than a simple dispute between an executive employee and an appointed commission; there are key policy issues at stake here — public power, community choice aggregation, and the city’s energy future — and they shouldn’t be settled in secret.

Ed Harrington has been a decent controller in many respects — but he’s never shown any indication of supporting public power. In fact, he’s done the opposite — every time the issue has come before him, he’s found a way to help PG&E. His estimates of the cost of public power ballot measures have been so wildly inflated as to be professionally embarrassing. For more than five years he’s refused to do what Sup. Chris Daly has requested and calculate the cost to the local economy of high PG&E rates. And Harrington was a senior PUC staffer when the sellout contracts with PG&E, Turlock, and Modesto were negotiated.

The Board of Supervisors should hold a hearing on these personnel changes and demand that Harrington appear and discuss publicly his position on CCA and PG&E. At the very least the voters should have the right to see this for what it appears to be: a Newsom-PG&E sneak attack on public power. And the board should pass Sup. Sophie Maxwell’s proposal to give it the authority to appoint some members of the PUC.

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

My brother called me from the East Coast over the weekend to ask if I was still alive and my house still standing. He’d been watching CNN, which apparently was showing nonstop reports of terrible storm carnage in Northern California, complete with breathless voice-overs talking about hurricane-force winds.

"Yeah," I told him. "It rained."

It was windy too. Some trees came down, my roof leaked a little, and some people who built houses on unstable hillsides learned what happens to unstable hillsides when it rains. None of this is terribly unusual or strange. It’s just that people in San Francisco aren’t used to living in a world where there’s actual weather. You’d think a place that could be shaken into dusty wreckage any minute by the inevitable earthquake would be a little less freaked about precipitation.

Still, I found a bit of a lesson here.

Just hours after the storm broke, while the bold and adventurous tech pioneers of Google were still huddled in their homes and afraid to go to work, the San Francisco Department of Public Works had crews on the streets clearing fallen trees. The response was stunningly efficient — the stuff that couldn’t be chopped up right away was hauled off to the side so cars could get through. By that evening the worst of the fallen timber was corralled and being cut up with chain saws. It’s fun to talk about the lazy, inefficient public sector, but frankly, the DPW did its job.

And 36 hours later, the efficient, private utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., still couldn’t get the power back on along Third Street.

We got a press release Friday from the Democratic Leadership Council, which runs the Bill Clinton wing of the party and has long supported Democrats who hew to the center-right. The DLC folks call these hawkish neocons "new Democrats." And according to their Jan. 4 statement, the "New Democrat of the Week" was … San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom got the award for "his continued commitment to reducing his city’s carbon footprint," which is fine and lovely. But it came the same week he announced, in a very DLC style, that he was bringing Kevin Ryan, the former United States attorney, on board as the head of his criminal justice council.

Ryan’s a right-wing prosecutor, a George W. Bush appointee who was in charge of the witch hunt and persecution that sent videographer Josh Wolf to jail for 226 days. Why, exactly, is a guy who has no respect for the First Amendment working for the mayor of San Francisco?

Newsom’s big plans to shake up his administration seem to amount to firing Public Utilities Commission general manager Susan Leal (who can’t be fired right now because she’s on job-related disability) and replacing her with controller Ed Harrington. Leal had to go because she might run for mayor in four years against whomever Newsom and chief consultant Eric Jaye handpick (Assessor Phil Ting seems to be the choice right now) and because, as Sup. Bevan Dufty put it, "PG&E was not happy about her."

Sounds like an award-winning strategy to me.

PS Our predatory-pricing case against the SF Weekly and its parent company goes to trial Jan. 14 in San Francisco Superior Court with Judge Marla Miller presiding.

Consolidating power


› amanda@sfbg.com

A proposal to consolidate some of the permitting functions of 10 city departments into one is currently floating through Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration as a result of his call to department heads for bold initiatives. It was developed by a department head who is receiving harsh criticism from his staff.

Isam Hasenin, the director of the Department of Building Inspection, originally unveiled the idea in a Dec. 3, 2007, memo presented to the mayor that calls for a shift into Hasenin’s department of the permitting currently reviewed by the Fire Department, the Planning Department, the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, the Public Utilities Commission, the Redevelopment Agency, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, the Port, the Airport, the Bureau of Urban Forestry, and the Municipal Transportation Agency.

The reason offered for such massive consolidation is customer service. "A single city-wide permitting department will be better equipped to manage the needs of our citizens and deliver a more efficient, reliable, consistent and timely service with a focus on excellent customer service," the memo reads.

Hasenin told us the idea was in response to a solicitation from Newsom. "The genesis of this idea came about as a general commitment from the Mayor’s Office to improve the city … to reinvigorate and streamline the processes of the city," he said.

It follows policy pledges made by the mayor since his first run for office. In campaign literature from 2003, Newsom wrote that his economic plan would "direct city agencies to streamline regulations and meet accelerated schedules for approving worthy new public and private projects, without compromising standards."

More recently, Newsom addressed a Dec. 19, 2007, Building Inspection Commission meeting at which this memo came up. "Systemically, the organization of things are such that institutionally they can’t change to the degree that we’d like to see them change," Newsom said. "So we have to break the institutions … in order to make the kinds of changes all of us in the city expect."

Several department spokespeople contacted by the Guardian had only heard vague suggestions about consolidation. Hasenin stressed that the proposal was still in an early, conceptual stage and that discussions among staff and all of the relevant stakeholders had yet to occur.

One department that hasn’t held back criticism of the proposal is the San Francisco Fire Department. "The administration, the Fire Commission, and Fire Fighters Local 798 are all aligned. We’d be concerned about any changes," department chief Joanne Hayes-White told us.

She first learned of the plan at an impromptu Dec. 6, 2007, meeting with the mayor at which, she says, she outlined several immediate concerns with the idea, including the fact that it may not be legal. She reported this to the Fire Commission at a Dec. 13, 2007, meeting: "There is specific language in the state’s Fire Code that the authority for these types of inspections rests with the Fire Department and the fire chief or the fire marshal."

Hayes-White also said, "I think it is important also — which we pointed out to the mayor — that there be appropriate checks and balances … and that there is no rubber-stamping of things." The Fire Commission echoed her sentiments and sent a letter to the mayor on Dec. 19.

Newsom’s Sept. 10, 2007, call for his senior staff to offer letters of resignation has had a chilling effect on his remaining administration, with some heads contacted by the Guardian reluctant to speak out against a policy that’s perceived to be coming from him. In some ways, that’s given the mayor even more power to advance potentially controversial ideas. Among those recently replaced by Newsom are the heads of the Planning Department, the Department of Public Works (which oversees the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping), the SFPUC, and the Redevelopment Agency.

"There’s an opportunity right now because of all these resignations to manipulate policy," said Debra Walker, president of the BIC. She stressed that she wasn’t sure whether that was an intention of this proposal, but she was unaware of the memo until concerned members of the Fire Department brought it up at the Dec. 19 meeting of the BIC. She said her department has since received a copy but has yet to discuss its implications as a commission.

Hasenin is a relatively new employee who joined the city about nine months ago from a previous post in San Diego. His leadership has already garnered a lengthy anonymous letter addressed to Newsom from a contingent of DBI staff outlining a raft of concerns about their new leader, including specifics like "Plan check engineers are afraid they will be fired unless they keep up with unreasonable turn around times and sign off on plans that are not ready for issuance because they do not comply with code."

Tiger tales


More on the SF Zoo:
>>20 Questions the zoo won’t answer
>>Editorial: Take back the zoo
>>Opinion: Shut down the zoo
>>From 1999: The Zoo Blues

› news@sfbg.com

When I first heard about the attack at the San Francisco Zoo, I felt strangely vindicated to learn that a Siberian tiger had been involved. I am irrationally prejudiced when it comes to big cats: I don’t like Siberians. Of all the tigers, lions, jaguars, and other exotic animals I have known in my day — and I grew up on a wild animal farm, so I have known quite a few — the only ones that truly frightened me were a chimpanzee named Lolita and a pair of Siberians (they’re known as Amurs now) that lived in an old shed about 100 feet from my front door.

When I read in March that two chimps from a California primate sanctuary had attacked a 62-year-old man, biting off much of his face, tearing off his foot, and mutiutf8g his genitals, I thought of Mike’s thumb. And when I heard that Tatiana had attacked three young men, killing one of them, I immediately thought of his ear.

Mike Bleyman was a biologist who built a research and breeding compound outside Pittsboro, NC, and like many exotic-animal fanatics he had a tendency to lose body parts. Fortunately, the surgeons in Chapel Hill were skilled at sewing them back on.

Mike was also my stepfather. My parents divorced when I was in junior high, and when my mother moved in with Mike on "the farm," I went with her.

I was present when Lolita bit Mike’s thumb right through the bone, almost severing it completely. I was away at college when the tiger got him.

Mike had arranged a trade with the Albuquerque Zoo in New Mexico — two Siberians and a Himalayan black bear for a young Sumatran tiger. Mike hit both tigers with tranquilizer darts. But ketamine, the drug of choice for sedating big cats, takes several minutes to work, and being an impatient man who didn’t play by the rules, Mike entered the cage before the recommended time had passed. When he approached the male, the female roused herself. She slashed Mike across the back, dislocated his elbow, and removed his ear.

The fact that Mike was able to extract himself from the cage alive is testament to the fact that the ketamine had at least begun to have an impact. Siberian tigers are not creatures you want to mess with.

Our other tigers, all Bengals, were sociable and playful. As I walked by they would chuffle their hellos. I would chuffle back and reach through the fence to scratch their necks or rub their noses. The Siberians, however, had a flat affect, rarely vocalized, and menacingly tracked passing humans.

I know it’s not fair to judge an entire subspecies by two individuals, and these cats had every reason to be sullen. They had evolved to preside as alpha predators over rugged territories of hundreds of square miles, and they were being forced to live sedentary lives in a gloomy shed probably no bigger than 200 square feet. But fair or not, they freaked me out.

I have been thinking a lot about those cats in the past couple of weeks as I have read the news stories coming from San Francisco. As someone who has bottle-fed several cubs, built my share of tiger cages, and shoveled more than my share of tiger shit, I know more than a little about Felis tigris.

I have been equally fascinated, if not more so, by the behavior of the other species that populates this tragic tale, the one known as Homo sapiens. In addition to being a former tiger farmer, I am also a journalist who once covered San Francisco politics. I still work occasionally as a communications consultant to nonprofits, and in my day job I am a manager of a small state agency and work regularly with elected officials. So when I look at this story through the lens of a behaviorist, I think about the traits of various human subspecies — politicians, bureaucrats, managers, spin doctors, journalists, self-proclaimed experts, and supposed guardians of health and safety. Frankly, I am not impressed.

Tatiana was killed for being a tiger. Tigers have only one self. They are what they are; end of story. Humans are a different order of being: we are capable of self-deception. We can lie to ourselves, we can deny what is right in front of us, we can try to shift blame, and we can avoid the things we know we should face.

And thereon hangs this tiger tale.


People have often asked me over the years why my stepfather had all of his animals. I like to tell them it was because he thought he was Tarzan. It’s not the absolute truth, but it is as valid as any other answer.

It started in the 1970s, when he just drove down to Florida one day and came back with a tiger cub.

For her first several months there, Gretchen had the run of the farm. I remember one weekend when Mike was teaching us to shoot: my sister Gwenn was lying in the bed of a battered red Toyota pickup, one eye closed and the other sighting down a rifle barrel at a paper bull’s-eye. She never saw the tiger stalking her from behind. As soon as Gretchen was near enough, she closed in a sudden burst, easily cleared the side of the bed, and landed squarely on Gwenn’s back. Gwenn just huffed, "Gretchen, get off," and calmly squeezed the trigger.

Gretchen, however, was soon too large to be treated like a funny-looking dog. Mike hired a backhoe operator to dig a moat around a knoll where an abandoned farmhouse perched. The man arrived on a day when Mike’s very wild foster daughter, Dianne, had cooked brownies. The backhoe operator didn’t realized they were laced with pot and ate a few. It took a long time to finish the job, in part because the guy kept nodding off, and in the end the moat had a peculiar shape.

Mike didn’t mind. He just put up an acircular fence around the acircular moat and called it Tiger Island.

The fence was 12 feet tall and built of heavy-gauge chain link. A barbed-wire overhang jutted inward from the top at a 45-degree angle. A tiger might be able to leap to the top of a 12-foot fence, but the moat meant there was no solid place from which Gretchen could launch herself.

If she tried to hurdle the fence, she’d have to start at least 10 feet back. And if she crossed the moat and pulled herself onto the narrow bank, she would have to jump straight up. That would mean an encounter with the overhang. She wouldn’t climb the fence because chain link is too wobbly. It was the way the moat and the fence and the overhang worked together that made the compound secure. Even when the moat ran dry in later years, a tiger would still have had to jump from the bottom of the dry moat, making the total leap on the order of 16 or 17 feet.

In other words, a stoned heavy-equipment operator and a somewhat oddball zoologist, with a few thousand dollars’ worth of chain link and barbed wire, managed to make a very secure tiger pen. I have to wonder why the privatized San Francisco Zoo, with millions of dollars in bond money and a director who earns $339,000 a year, couldn’t.


Early reports from San Francisco described the tiger grotto as having a wall and a moat as if they were separate things and gave dimensions for both — initially 15 feet for the moat and 20 feet for the wall. When I read that, I began examining aerial photos to look for other points of egress. I studied the height and the angle of the side walls.

All tigers can climb trees. Amur habitat includes mountain ranges. They don’t like steep slopes, but they’re capable of scrambling over rocky faces. Perhaps Tatiana got out that way, I thought, but I soon rejected the idea.

The aerials showed me the initial reports were inaccurate. There never was a wall and a moat. Tatiana’s compound was nothing like Gretchen’s. There was only a moat, and the so-called wall was simply the far bank. The moat isn’t, in zoological terms, either a physical or a psychological fail-safe. It’s simply a way of recessing a wall into the earth so it doesn’t block human sight lines.

A dry moat can actually be worse than a wall because the far bank gives a tiger launching points. When the jump-off point is around the same elevation as the top of the far bank, as it is at the San Francisco Zoo, the moat’s depth may not matter. The question becomes not how high the tiger can jump but how far it can leap. History and a close look at pictures of the grotto suggest that is exactly the question San Francisco and zoos everywhere should be asking.

One rule of thumb is that a moat needs to be four times the average body length of the species it is suppose to contain, which for an Amur is just an inch shy of six feet. That means a moat should be at least 24 feet across. I’m skeptical of this calculation. Mean body length for a mountain lion, for example, puts the recommended moat distance at just over 13 feet, yet there are credible reports of mountain lions leaping 35 feet.

An alternative is the cat’s known leaping distance plus 20 percent. The oft-reported leaping distance is 20 feet, so the minimum width would again be 24 feet. There are accounts of tigers leaping 30 to 33 feet, but I have not been able to determine whether these were documented. In China, the Yangtze River runs through Leaping Tiger Gorge, so named because a tiger leaped the river to escape a hunter, according to local lore. The river at its narrowest is about 82 feet wide. The story is a fable, but it gives you a sense of the tiger’s reputation as a prodigious leaper. Based on my years of observing tigers at play, 30 feet does not seem at all out of the question.

Such calculations likely contributed to the standards of two Association of Zoos and Aquarium committees. Both the AZA Felid Technical Advisory Group and the AZA Nutrition Advisory Group recommend a minimum width of 25 feet for a tiger moat.

So imagine my reaction when Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo stated his belief that the tiger could not have escaped from the moat, while also saying that according Zoo records, the moat was 20 feet across. I have never met Mollinedo, and he didn’t return my calls, but in my opinion the man has no idea what he is talking about.

Then came reports that the moat is 33 feet across. Well … sort of, maybe, kind of. It may be 33 feet from wall to wall, but the bank on the grotto side slopes to a flat floor 20 feet across. Some clever bloke decided to make the transition look more natural by placing fake boulders atop the slope. These project out into the moat and in some cases rise above the grotto floor. A tiger that launched from the lip of one of these would have to cross far less than 30 feet.

I asked the Zoo for the narrowest leap between the outside wall and these "rocks." Zoo officials didn’t respond. So I went out there with my tape measure.

The tiger grotto is closed off, and Zoo officials also declined to answer my request for access to the area. But through a side window I was able to study a neighboring lion grotto with a similar design. A rock ledge stuck out into the moat more than seven feet, leaving a gap I measured along the outer wall at about 25 feet. Using aerial photographs and online measuring tools to look at Tatiana’s grotto, I repeatedly got widths of less than 24 feet.

In other words, the width of the moat most likely does not meet AZA standards, which could hardly be described as overly cautious.


The world soon found out the bank of Tatiana’s grotto was less than 12.5 feet high, and experts quickly agreed that a motivated tiger could have surmounted the wall. Yet Mollinedo was still expressing disbelief.

We know tigers pluck monkeys from tree branches, bound over steep rock faces, and jump on the backs of large prey. But how tall do they stand, and how much can they elevate? The best evidence I can find of an Amur’s reach comes from the field studies of Anatolii Grigor’evich Yudakov. One way Amurs mark their territory is by making scratches high in the bark of trees. Yudakov measured these marks at 210 to 290 centimeters, or roughly 7 to 9.5 feet.

For an Amur standing on its hind legs to reach the top of a 12.5 foot wall, it would have to elevate another 3 to 5.5 feet. Remember Gretchen jumping effortlessly over the side rail of a small pickup? Four feet.

A major prey species for Amurs is the Manchurian red deer, which stands up to five feet at the shoulder. Though not sourced, many references report a vertical leap for tigers of six feet. Take a tiger with a reach of almost 10 feet and a vertical leap of six feet, and suddenly the industry standard of a 16-foot wall has no appreciable margin for error.

Then there are the events of May 14, 1994, when a Bengal tiger in India’s Kaziranga National Park attacked a man on the back of an elephant. According to a press release from Wildlife Trust International, executive director Vivek Menon reviewed footage of the attack and exclaimed, "I could never imagine that a tiger could so effortlessly leap from the ground onto an adult elephant’s head, which is at least 12 feet above the ground."

There has been much speculation about whether a captive tiger is capable of matching the jumping ability of a wild cat. Presumably a confined tiger would be sluggish, out of shape, her muscles atrophied. No one to my knowledge, though, has studied the sports physiology of tigers.

I can say from personal experience that even captive tigers are incredibly agile and powerful. We had a Bengal named Engels (the litter was born on May Day) who lived on Tiger Island. One day a female Bengal tried to snatch some food from him. He swiped at her almost casually, hitting her in the side. The force of the blow immediately stopped the young tiger’s heart, and she fell over dead.


So what happened that day at the Zoo? So far, none of the witnesses are talking. Media accounts suggest one scenario: Tatiana may have stood on her hind legs against the wall, pushed off from the bottom of the moat, grabbed the top of the wall with her front paws, and leveraged herself up and over by digging her hind claws into the wall. That’s conceivable, I guess. Tatiana may even have escaped before the attack and waited for her prey in the tall grass beside the moat.

I have a very hard time imagining that, though. For one thing, the wall curves outward at the top. For another, such methodical, incremental movement is not typical of a tiger. They stalk their prey slowly, but in a brutal burst, they close with amazing speed. I am convinced Tatiana exploded from the grotto, landed on the lip, and then powered her way up. Whether she sprang from one of the protruding rocks, the sloped bank, or the moat floor is almost immaterial, but I am inclined to believe she jumped over the moat.

Strangely, Mollinedo may have been on the right track at a Dec. 28 press conference when he said, "How she jumped that high is beyond me." She may not have jumped high at all; I suspect she just jumped long.

I base this on my observations of tigers and my study of grotto photographs, but it is supported by history. There are three known escapes from Tatiana’s grotto and one near escape. In one case the escape went unwitnessed.

Keepers Jack Castor and John Alcaraz walked by the grotto one day a few years back and saw a Bengal named Jack wandering outside, Alcaraz told me by phone. They yelled at him, and he jumped back in.

David Rentz witnessed another escape in 1959, when he was a young Zoo volunteer. He’s an entomologist in Australia now, and he recently wrote in his blog that the tiger "flew across the moat from his position on the other side … and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement." There had been previous reports this same tiger could jump the moat.

Then there’s the near escape witnessed by Marian Roth-Cramer in 1997. In an interview in the Dec. 27 San Francisco Chronicle, she said, "I saw the tiger leap over the moat." This makes me wonder why so much coverage has focused on the height of the wall and not the width of the moat.

Media coverage has also focused on whether the men taunted or teased Tatiana. I find this discussion ludicrous. Zoos know animal abuse comes with the territory. They must anticipate it, prevent it, and prepare for its consequences. It’s part of the job. And besides, how does one taunt a tiger?

When I think of taunting, I think of the French kibitzers and King Arthur’s men in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a scene reprised in Spamalot. I imagine some kids shouting into the grotto, "Your mother was a wild boar, and you father smelt of porcelainberries. I scent-mark in your general direction."

Teasing a confined animal means tempting it with something it can’t have — a ball, say, or your throat.

Tatiana wasn’t teased. She got what she wanted.

Tigers attack for limited reasons — they see you as prey, they see you as a threat to them, their cubs, or their food, or they dislike you because of something you did to them. Perhaps Tatiana saw the young men as a threat. Perhaps they pissed her off. But a simpler explanation is that their behavior got the cat’s attention, and perhaps they crossed the fence and got too close to the edge, until at some point Tatiana identified Kulbir Dhaliwal as prey that had come within range. It seems significant that the attack occurred at twilight, since tigers are crepuscular, meaning they are most active then. It’s their favorite time to hunt.

Naturalist and western novelist Dane Coolidge wrote in 1901 that Indians classify tigers as game killers, cattle lifters, or man killers. People have suggested tigers become human killers because they develop a taste for human flesh. I believe tigers will eat almost anything — but they’re wary of taking on prey that might fight back effectively. They lose any hesitancy when they discover just how vulnerable we humans are. Tatiana proved she had no inhibitions about dining on human flesh when she attacked keeper Lori Kamejan in 2006.

Carlos Sousa Jr. apparently tried to distract Tatiana from her attempted "kill," and I use that term loosely since tigers naturally feed on prey that is still alive, and captive tigers are in-between creatures, psychologically speaking. Wild cubs learn from their mothers to dispatch prey effectively, but captive-bred tigers are never taught that skill. In terms of hardware, they may be the world’s finest killers, but their software is buggier than Windows Vista.

Tigers often have to protect their prey after an attack. They are followed by wild dogs and bears that try to scavenge their kills, and herd animals will sometimes try to rescue a herdmate. Tatiana most likely fought off the threat from Sousa, slashing his throat in the process, then tracked her wounded prey to finish what she started. It wasn’t a rampage, a vicious and angry outburst, as media reports have described it, just the methodical, instinctive actions of a top-of-the-line predator.


If you look at what led up to Tatiana’s escape, you follow a trail of denial and avoidance.

Consider the players, starting with Zoo management and keepers.

Zoo staffers have known for almost a half century that a tiger could jump out of that grotto. Carey Baldwin, then the Zoo director, witnessed the escape with Rentz in 1959. His solution, according to Rentz’s blog, was to post instructions to keep the offending tiger indoors. Castor’s solution to Jack’s escape was to fill the moat with water, according to Alcaraz, but that practice ended after Jack died. Neither solution was permanent or designed to deal with the next strong-legged, strong-willed tiger to come along.

When Roth-Cramer witnessed the near escape, a passing keeper apparently laughed it off. She reportedly wrote a letter to then–Zoo director David Anderson, but there is no evidence her letter produced any response.

As far as we can tell, no one ever tried to convince the AZA or federal regulators that they needed tougher standards or tougher enforcement. No one took the story to the press or published a journal article to warn other Zoo professionals. No one posted public warnings, ordered changes to the grotto, banned tigers from the exhibit, or shut the lion house.

Mollinedo should have known about the problem if his keepers knew. But there seems to be a lot he doesn’t know, and previous Guardian reports and a recent Chronicle article suggest communication has broken down between employees, particularly keepers, and Zoo management. Lower-level staff complain of not being heard, not being consulted. Morale is low. Institutional knowledge is being lost as keepers quit in frustration.

And what about the regulators? Ron Tilson, the conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo, said in a Dec. 27 Chronicle story that the AZA standard, which he said was seven meters (closer to 23 feet), is "very conservative." Yet this has less than a 20 percent safety margin when you consider the conventional wisdom about how far a tiger can jump, and it is far less than reported leaps of 30 feet or more.

The day after the attack, the AZA issued a statement that "AZA accreditation standards contain no specific dimensions for big cat enclosures." The AZA did not return calls seeking comment, but what it provides is really a set of guidelines produced by advisory committees for a voluntary association composed of the very institutions being regulated. The guidelines aren’t consistently known and have never been fully implemented.

We know the AZA accredited the San Francisco Zoo despite a wall almost four feet shorter than the recommended height.

In 1974 the Philadelphia Zoo surveyed 10 other zoos about their tiger moats. It published the findings in the 1976 International Zoo Yearbook. San Francisco reported its moat was 13.5 feet deep. Detroit said its moat was 15.5 feet deep. Chicago’s moat was only 21 feet wide, and Tulsa reported between 15 and 20 feet. Oklahoma’s moat was only 17 feet wide. Half of the surveyed zoos couldn’t meet AZA recommendations.

There are signs the San Francisco Zoo did not meet other AZA standards. For example, the AZA’s 2008 Accreditation Standards and Related Policies states, "A written protocol should be developed involving local police or other emergency agencies." On Jan. 3, I e-mailed 20 questions to the Zoo’s public relations firm, many of which related to AZA standards. For example, I asked about the last emergency drill and about gun training. I also asked for copies of related Zoo policies. The Zoo never responded. But the next day Mollinedo announced that the Zoo is working with police at Taraval Station on a coordinated emergency response and that police and Zoo shooters will be training together.

The United States Department of Agriculture regulates zoos as exhibitors under the Animal Welfare Act. That act and the rules written to implement it are primarily meant to ensure healthy conditions for the animals. They contain specifications for the size of the fences around the outside of a zoo facility to keep unauthorized people out, not for the fences separating the animals from visitors.

And local oversight? The city owns the grounds and the animals. Zoo employees are part of the city employees union. But since 1993 the nonprofit San Francisco Zoological Society has owned the institution and operated it under a contract with the city. There were problems at the Zoo when the city ran it, but, as Sup. Tom Ammiano told me, "Nobody died."

The contract retains a role for the city through a Joint Zoo Committee of society board members and Recreation and Park Department commissioners. I have gone though the minutes of that committee going back several years, and I have to say the committee provides as much oversight as the stuffed animals in the Zoo’s gift ship. As Ammiano put it, "It’s all lip service."

The employee relations problems, the animal injuries and deaths (see Opinion, page 7), and other management issues at the Zoo are nothing new. Savannah Blackwell reported on these same sets of issues for the Guardian twice — see "The Zoo Blues" (5/19/99) and "The Zoo’s Losers" (5/7/03) — and there is no indication anything has been done.

The city’s contract with the Zoological Society and the Joint Zoo Committee should mean Zoo documents are public under the city’s sunshine laws. But the Zoo has not been forthcoming with key documents requested by the media. Sup. Sean Elsbernd has called for hearings, and Ammiano said there will be multiple hearings. "I think the key issues are accountability and transparency," he said.

The Zoo’s high-priced director has demonstrated that his knowledge of the animals under his care, the condition of his facilities, and the concerns of his staff are embarrassingly limited. In press conferences he looked befuddled, evaded questions, broke every rule of crisis communication, and speculated about the victims without clear information.

The Zoo hired Sam Singer, supposedly a crisis communication specialist, but I have attended multiple trainings in crisis communication, and I have to say he seems more like a fixer to me. And despite this, Mayor Gavin Newsom and the society’s board publicly support Mollinedo.

Mollinedo and his PR people have tried to direct blame toward the victims. Perhaps they were drunk, stoned, rowdy, throwing things — but if Tatiana was killed for being a tiger, it could also be argued that Sousa was killed for being a young man.

There’s a whole process of brain development that scientists are now beginning to understand. The maturation of brain cells through something called myelination starts from the back of the brain. The front of the brain, the seat of executive functions like judgment, matures last. Young people often don’t make good decisions. Boys, in particular, take unnecessary risks.

In the public health world, we understand this and concentrate on policies that control risk and reduce harm. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the survivors accountable for anything they might have done, but it does mean the Zoo has no business shifting the blame.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with more avoidance than a tiger has stripes.

In the end, this was a human problem. People weren’t doing their jobs. They had not taken action when it was clearly needed. And in the end, the only innocent creature in this drama was the one that had no choice other than to be what she was. Her name was Tatiana.

And now she is dead, along with a young man whose parents loved and miss him very much.

Craig McLaughlin is a former Guardian managing editor. He is coauthor of Health Policy Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Jones and Bartlett, 2008).

The questions the zoo won’t answer


Editors note: Craig McLaughlin sent the following questions to the office of the zoo’s hired flack, Sam Singer. We received no reply by press time.

I was raised around tigers. I know their habits and capabilities and was personally involved in constructing cages for them. I have been amazed by some of the comments attributed to Mr. Mollinedo in local news accounts. He initially reported that the wall of the moat was 20 ft high but the moat was 20 feet across. The difference between the elevations of the grotto and the viewing area is clearly, by any direct observation, only a few feet. That means that regardless of the depth of the dry moat, there is a question of whether the tiger could simply leap from bank to bank. Conventional wisdom in the tiger literature is that they can jump 20 feet, and there are accounts in the literature of leaps as long as 30 or even 33 feet. Given this, it makes no sense based on records available to Mr. Mollinedo that the grotto could be considered secure. In the end, we learned the moat’s width varied from 20 to 33 feet depending on how far one descended, but that the far wall was only 12.5 feet. Mr. Mollinedo then expressed surprise that a tiger could leap or climb over a wall of that height. Given my own knowledge of and direct observation of tigers, a tiger making that leap, even a captive tiger, is not surprising in the least, and taunting would not be a prerequisite. I would have to say that Mr. Mollinedo has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to tigers, and would even go so far as to say it was idiotic for him to make the comments he did–and I am prepared to say that in print. Does Mr. Mollinedo or your firm have any response?

1. Please provide a copy of the zoo’s written protocol concerning tiger escapes.

2. What is the size, caliber, and make of the zoo’s kill rifle(s)?

3. Where is it/are they stored?

4. How many people are authorized and trained to use it (them)? How often do they practice?

5. How many of those people were on the zoo grounds from 5-5:30 pm Christmas day?

6. Was a kill rifle (or rifles) and/or a shooting team deployed during Tatiana’s escape?

7. Minutes of the San Francisco Joint Zoo Committee talk about the improvements, including improvements to the lion house, providing keeper staging areas. Where is the nearest staging area to the to the tiger grotto and was it staffed at 5 pm on Christmas day?

8. When was the last date that the zoo conducted an emergency drill for an animal escape? AZA accreditation standards state “Emergency drills ensure that the instiutution’s staff know their duties and responsibilities and know how to handle mergencies properly when they occur…. Emergency drills shouldbe conducted at least once annually for each basic type of emergency.”

9. Please provide a copy of the record and evaluation of the last animal escape emergency drill? AZA standards state that “these drills need to be recorded and evaluated … Records of these drills need to be maintained.”

10. What training do security personnel recieve in how to respond to an animal emergency. How long is the training, who provides it, and are refreshers required? Had security personnel on duty that night been trained?

11. Why did cafe personnel not let the injured patrons inside so they would not be subject to further attacks? What are the policies about sheltering patrons in concession, entertainment and administrative areas during an animal attack?

12. Please provide a copy of the written protocol between the zoo and local police and other local emergency responders as required by AZA standards.

13. The Chronicle and other sources have reported that the tiger grotto was refurbished/remodeled recently and the cats returned in September. Is this true? Please describe what alterations or improvements were made? What contractor did the work? Was an architect involved in preparing plans and if so, who and at what firm? Was Tatiana housed in the same grotto prior to the remodel? Were keepers consulted in the rennovations?

14. There are at least two credible media accounts of tigers escaping from that grotto previously and one account of a near escape. These were known to keepers and in one case reported in a letter to zoo management. Was the zoo director aware of any of these accounts? Should he have been?

15. It is common practice in the business, public and nonprofit sector to consult with subordinates when conducting performance reviews of senior managers (a so-called 360 is one of the best known examples). When was the last performance review of Mr. Mollinedo conducted? Were keepers and other direct and indirect subordinates consulted as part of that review? Does the zoo have written policies in place concerning executive performance reviews? If so, please provide a copy.

16. I believe the zoo’s agreement with the city makes clear that zoo documents should be made available to the city Rec and Parks Department and therefore should be available to the public under the city’s sunshine law. The zoo, however, has not been forthcoming with specifics about the incident or readily provided related documentation. Why is this and how is this allowed under the contract?

17. Who was the designated person for emergency contact for the zoo at the time of the escape? When was that person accessed and by what form of communication?

18. Your firm specializes in crisis communication. The field of crisis communications is well established and has some commonly accepted principles. One of these is truthfulness–officials and spokespersons should be forthright and direct when communicating with employees, the public and the media. Another is timeliness–respond quickly to media and legal inquiries and be be proactive. Expressing empathy and putting people first are also important. Accepting responsibility goes a long way and blaming and attacking is contraindicated. As a public health official, I have been trained in crisis communication. Zoo management seems to be evasive and not forthcoming. Requests for interviews have not been responded to. How do you think the zoo performed initially in this regard and how have things changed since your firm became involved? For example, simple questions are still not being answered. I was surprised to know the zoo had been closed for a long time for a variety of reasons (including the fact that it was a crime scene) and then after they hired your firm, the Web site announces the zoo is closed in honor of the victims. This seem disingenuous to me. I find it dubious that that was really the motivating factor for the extended closure. Any response? (My own opinion is that given joint oversight, the wording of the agreement, and the fact that many dispositions will be conducted, I see no advantage to not responding affirmative and immediately to requests for information and records.)

19. Did the zoo have a media relations policy in place concerning employee interactions with the media prior to this incident. If so, please provide a copy.

20. Does the zoo have a response to SF Chronicle articles that paint a picture of poor management and very bad employee morale at the zoo?

Take back the zoo


EDITORIAL It may be months before we know just how Tatiana the tiger escaped and killed Carlos Sousa Jr. Since nobody seems to have the incident on video, none of the witnesses are talking, and the event is bound to be the subject of multimillion-dollar lawsuits, the exact details may never come out.

But it’s safe at this point to say one thing: the privatization of the San Francisco Zoo has been a failure.

When the city turned the management of the place over to the San Francisco Zoological Society in 1997, all of the lingering financial problems were supposed to be solved. The society could raise money: big donors would pay for what the city couldn’t. Animal welfare would be improved; facilities would be brought up to modern standards.

And indeed, there are some new habitats for the animals and some fancy amenities for the humans, including a spiffy $3 million Leaping Lemur Café and an educational center.

But when you look at what’s happened with the animals, the record is pretty shoddy. We’ve been reporting on this for almost a decade (see "The Zoo Blues," 5/19/99, and "The Zoo’s Losers," 5/7/2003). Mark Salomon has compiled a nice updated list of all of the problems in this week’s Op-Ed piece. And the moment the tiger escape happened, we saw exactly why a private agency shouldn’t be running this sort of public facility: a lid of Pentagon-style secrecy was clamped on every aspect of the disaster. Employees were forbidden to talk to the press. Key records weren’t available. The Zoo hired a private public relations firm that immediately began spinning like crazy.

As Craig McLaughlin, a former Guardian editor and tiger expert, reports on page 15, there are endless questions about the escape — and there’s plenty of evidence that the Zoo should have known long ago that the tiger grotto wasn’t secure. This wasn’t the first tiger escape; at least once previously one of the big cats was found outside the fence, and at least twice tigers have come close to jumping over the wall. It appears as if the Zoo didn’t even know how tall the walls were or whether the setup was adequate (and frankly, containing tigers isn’t that difficult or expensive).

Privatization has been good for the director, Manuel Mollinedo, whose total compensation last year came to $339,000, according to the Zoological Society’s federal tax forms. But Mollinedo’s comments about the escape haven’t been encouraging; he seemed mystified at first about how the tiger could have gotten free, then denied the facility was unsafe, then admitted he didn’t know whether it was safe or not. At no point did he say or do anything to give the public confidence that this highly paid executive was willing to take responsibility for a problem or move effectively to solve it.

And, of course, while the city has no real oversight or authority over the Zoo, San Francisco taxpayers will probably have to foot the bill for the gigantic legal settlements that will come out of this fiasco.

This is no way to run a public facility.

The Board of Supervisors ought to hold hearings on the Zoo right away, and the budget analysts should do a management audit of the Zoological Society. But in the end, the city needs to sever its contract with this private nonprofit. If there’s going to be a zoo in San Francisco, it needs to be run by and for the public.

PS Sam Singer, the Zoo’s hired gun, has made a mess of the situation, making apparently false accusations about the victims and refusing to come clean on the facts. He can sling dirt, but he wouldn’t answer the 20 key questions we posed to him. He’s an example of what’s wrong with privatization.

Chiaroscuro Ristorante


REVIEW The word chiaroscuro is an Italian art term referring to the use of light and shadow to create a three-dimensional effect — and it’s a fitting name to describe this small restaurant’s decor (cement benches, a white-gray-black color scheme, and an exposed kitchen) as well as its cuisine.

My companion and I started with the degustazione di salume e formaggi, a selection of salami and cheese. As a salami lover (my roommates always know whom to blame when their salami is missing after one of my nights out), I truly enjoyed Chiaroscuro’s options. And the cheese, a spectrum from soft to sharp, was also impressive. Plus, our waitress recommended a matching wine that even pleased my companion, who’s more of a wine-no than a wino.

Next came the entrées. I tried fresh gnocchi, which melted like potatoey butter — and with sage, like Mom makes! — in my mouth; lamb chops, polenta, and greens. The lamb was everything it should have been: lean meat, cooked medium and spiced lightly. The polenta came as a mini soufflé with a raw cracked egg in the center — too bland for non–polenta lovers like my dinner companion, but perfectly gritty, dry, and palatable for me. In fact, the polenta was the most impressive dish I ate all night, hands down.

The prices are considerable and the portions are small, but the food is both simple and solid: there’s no gray there.

CHIAROSCURO RISTORANTE Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–midnight. 550 Washington, SF. (415) 362-6012, www.chiaroscurosf.com