Take back the zoo

Pub date January 9, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

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.