This story was first published May 19, 1999
IN EARLY 1997, the San Francisco Zoo had a serious public-relations problem. The zoo wanted San Francisco voters to approve a $48 million bond measure to overhaul the facilities. But the Asian elephant exhibit was making the zoo look bad.
Tinkerbelle the elephant had been living alone since April 1995, when her longtime companion, Pennie, was put to sleep. Animal activists had been complaining that, for an animal that herds and has complex social interactions in the wild, life alone was cruel and unacceptable. According to the minutes from a board meeting of the San Francisco Zoological Society, the private group that manages the zoo, executive director David Anderson decided it was time to find a friend for Tinkerbelle. He thought he found her in Calle.
Calle was about 30 years old and on exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. She had put in her time entertaining humans, working shows in Las Vegas and giving rides to kids at the San Diego Zoo. Animal advocates in Los Angeles were trying to get her to a sanctuary in Tennessee. But Anderson decided he wanted her in San Francisco.
Animal rights advocates hated the idea. Gretchen Wyler, executive director of Endocino-<\h>based Arc Trust came to San Francisco to check out the zoo’s facilities. “I was devastated when I saw how small and barren it was,” Wyler told the Bay Guardian.
S.F. Zoo curator David Robinett denies that the decision to move Calle to San Francisco had anything to do with the timing of the bond campaign. “We were anxious to move ahead and get a companion for Tinkerbelle,” he told us.
Either way, the zoo was in a hurry — and it wound up with a huge problem on its hands. Before leaving Los Angeles, Calle was tested for tuberculosis. According to Susanne Barthell, who ran the Council for Excellence in Zoo Animal Management until her death last fall, the elephant population at the L.A. Zoo was known to have problems with T.B., a claim Robinett denies. But S.F. Zoo officials did not wait for the test results to come back before they brought Calle north on March 19, 1997.
The tests came back positive. The zoo had just bought a tuberculous elephant.
As soon as she arrived, Calle had to be quarantined from her new companion. And the financially troubled zoo got hit with elephantine medical bills. Calle’s treatment would run from $60,000 to $65,000 a year, curator Robinett told the city’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare in July.
It got worse. In separating the elephants, zoo workers put Calle in the cushier exhibit quarters, which at least had some vegetation and a watering hole. Tinkerbelle was moved to neighboring quarters, without vegetation or water. She had to poke her trunk through a hole in the wall to refresh herself. (Only this month was the electrified barrier between the two areas removed permanently. Calle is cured, and the two elephants can now interact.)
The elephant debacle is all too typical. San Francisco’s zoo has never been one of the country’s best — but six years after it was placed in private hands, it’s in worse shape than ever. Privatization was supposed to save the zoo; instead it has failed it. A Bay Guardian investigation based on interviews and documents shows:
* Dozens of animals live in squalid, substandard conditions: primates have died because of disease-<\h>ridden cages, orangutans are cooped up in tiny cement boxes, rare rainforest mammals are losing hair.
* The number of zoo employees charged with taking care of the animals has plummeted — while the number of other employees has doubled.
* The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so frustrated with the S.F. Zoo’s animal mistreatment, it is threatening to fine the zoo thousands of dollars — and one foundation that had given hundreds of thousands to the zoo has withdrawn its funding.
* Thanks to a string of expensive bond issues, the public is still paying for the zoo, but zoo executive director David Anderson has seen his own salary substantially boosted.
* Marketing expenses have skyrocketed, and the zoo is heavily dependent on amusement park–<\d>type rides and other non-educational attractions to break even.
* City officials have become so skeptical of the zoo society’s ability to manage itself that Board of Supervisors president Tom Ammiano called for an audit last spring. Stanton W. Jones, an auditor who works for budget analyst Harvey Rose, is expected to release the audit late this summer.
In fact, the zoo is a case study of everything that is wrong with privatization.
A bad place to live
The push to privatize the zoo got rolling in 1990, when David Anderson was brought in from New Orleans’s Audubon Park and Zoological Garden. The zoo’s infrastructure was crumbling, and its finances were in bad shape. Sources in the Recreation and Park Department say Anderson enthusiastically advocated privatization as a solution.
Without accepting bids from other organizations, Rec and Park handed over control of the zoo to the private San Francisco Zoological Society, which had been raising money for the zoo since 1954. In the summer of 1993 the society agreed to lease the premises and take over management of the zoo, promising to balance its budget by June 30, 1998 (see “Sold!,” 10/19/94).
Anderson has made out handsomely from the deal. In 1994 the society paid him $81,443; by 1997 his total compensation had gone up to $148,500, including a $25,000 bonus — in a year when the zoo was still losing money.
The animals have fared much worse.
Within the past two months the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which governs animal care in zoos, has issued the society a warning. According to the USDA, inspectors have repeatedly notified zoo administrators about problems. If those problems aren’t corrected, the agency is now threatening to fine the zoo.
“We made it clear that they are not doing a good job on maintenance,” Wensley Koch, supervisory animal care specialist with the USDA’s western sector office, told the Bay Guardian. “Basically there’s a management problem.”
Records of inspection reports dating back to 1990 reveal problems throughout the zoo facilities — from the big cats’ lairs to the monkeys’ quarters. Wood is rotting; fences are rusting. Rats get into food areas and leave droppings.
Many of the problems are associated with the primate center, which has been a trouble spot since it was built in 1985. The colobus monkeys’ metal climbing bars were grooved. Since keepers couldn’t clean them of feces, the monkeys got sick from contact with their own excrement. The colobus population was decimated. According to Sandra Keller of Citizens for a Better Zoo, which was watch<\h>dogging the zoo at the time, 53 of the 85 primates in the center died.
“Once they opened it, the animals started dying,” Keller told the Bay Guardian. “They didn’t quarantine the new animals sufficiently when they were brought in. They basically wiped out the whole primate collection. It was heartbreaking.”
But turning the zoo over to the private society didn’t help. If anything, conditions are worse. A September 1996 USDA inspection found feces all over outdoor structures in the primate center. And in April 1997 an inspector noted that rat feces were found in the gorillas’ indoor housing area and that weeds and bushes grew out of control in the outside exhibit.
Inspectors frequently found that problems they had repeatedly brought to the society’s attention had not been addressed. For example, rotting wooden structures in the primate center went unrepaired for years between inspections; wire mesh fences keeping the colobus monkeys from escaping the exhibit continued to rust for a year after the USDA-imposed deadline to fix them.
Indeed, records from the past three years show that the zoo was regularly blowing its USDA-imposed deadlines on fixing facilities.
“When you’ve been writing ‘rust up’ for 10 years, most people get the message,” Koch told the Bay Guardian. “We’re at the point where, if the zoo doesn’t shape up, we might be forced to take an action against them. We can fine them up to $2,500 per violation.”
“If we’re looking at a monkey enclosure and we explain that a rusty enclosure is a problem and we note they also have rust at the zebra site, then the next time we come out, we don’t want to see a rusty elephant enclosure,” she said. “What becomes obvious is that either they don’t care about complying or they have decided not to. When they’re doing that, they’re using us as a quality control agency. The impression is that they have no quality control themselves.”
A 1993 incident involving an orangutan named Chewbacca sheds light on how zoo officials have tended to respond to agency involvement. Responding to an anonymous complaint, the USDA found that zoo officials had been planning to keep the 150-pound Chewbacca confined to a four-by-six-foot converted entryway for more than a year while they used his quarters to breed chimpanzees.
“From my perspective it appears that the project with the chimpanzees has been ill conceived,” William DeHaven, a sector supervisor with the USDA, noted on Oct. 12 of that year. “If you do not have sufficient space to conduct a breeding program properly, we feel it should not be conducted at all.”
USDA veterinary medical officer Richard Spira found Robinett to be uncooperative in dealing with the situation. “Incredibly, David Robinett took exception to my observation that the temporary night quarters were cramped at best,” Spira wrote to Koch. “This … is to give you a little taste of the double<\h>speak I’m getting at the zoo.”
The zoo has been no quicker to respond to problems brought to its attention by private citizens. On January 23, 1997, Barthell complained to both the zoo and the USDA. Barthell, an outspoken critic of the zoo, reported that she had seen a herd of six blackbuck standing in a driving rainstorm with no shelter, not even a tree. She also noted that 12 kangaroo were soaked and huddling against a wall for protection, their shelters too small to protect them.
Robinett responded to her concerns in writing. “This is not atypical of antelope,” he wrote. “In fact, many species react to inclement weather by seeking open space rather than cover.” He also said the kangaroo shelters were fine.
The USDA didn’t see it that way. The agency informed the zoo in February 1997 that shelter provided for both the blackbuck and the kangaroos was inadequate.
Robinett denied that the zoo has a cavalier attitude toward facilities problems.
“A lot of it is the age of the enclosures,” Robinett told us. “It is also a problem of limited resources. When you’re patching the patch of a patch — that’s when there are problems.”
He said that the zoo had to choose carefully how to spend its funds and that it gave the highest priority to the ones that officials there felt posed the greatest hazard to animals. And Wayne Reading, the society’s chief financial officer, says the infrastructure improvements are well underway, funded by donations and bond revenues.
Private zoo, public funds
When the society assumed control of the zoo in 1993, it was on the verge of collapse. City officials had neglected at least $10 million in facility maintenance; the number of paying visitors was in decline.
According to the zoo society’s lease, the city agreed to keep paying the zoo $4 million a year (to help cover the cost of civil service employees). In exchange, the society was supposed to take over the zoo and make it financially viable.
The society was not able to pull the zoo out of the red. In the spring of 1997, after four years of losing money, zoo officials admitted to acting parks director Joel Robinson that they were paying operating expenses with a loan of roughly $2.5 million from Wells Fargo as well as with money raised before the zoo went private. And in November of that year, Reading told the Rec and Park Commission that the marketing expenses for that fiscal quarter were over budget by $47,000. The society raised admissions prices in spring 1998 to cover an immediate $250,000 shortfall.
The society had already started going after an infusion of public funds. The minutes of society meetings show that for more than a year, the group devoted almost all its energy to getting a $48 million bond issue passed. According to the lease, the city agreed to sell at least $25 million in bonds to improve crumbling facilities. The society was supposed to raise $25 million from private funders by the time the bonds were sold. (To date, the society has raised $17 million.)
In June 1997, voters passed the $48 million bond issue. The zoo expected the bonds to start selling in late fall 1998, but they were delayed by a lawsuit seeking to overturn voter approval of the 49ers stadium bonds, which passed in the same election. That litigation was thrown out of court; the zoo bonds are expected to be sold this summer. The society has also taken $26 million from bonds issued for rebuilding after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
The city’s Recreation and Park Department responded to the zoo’s financial troubles by looking the other way. Rather than conduct an audit of the zoo or monitor the operation more closely, the department announced that it would no longer scrutinize the zoo’s budgets at all (see “The Secret Zoo,” 11/26/97, and “Don’t Feed the Zoo Society,” 12/10/97).
Rec and Park’s former finance director Ernie Prindle, who had been checking the zoo’s budgets until 1997, told the Bay Guardian that Anderson seemed to want the zoo to have the advantages of being run by a private organization while still being covered by a public one. When the zoo admitted in the fall of 1997 it was further in debt than it should have been, Anderson asked why the department could not just take care of the deficit and make the numbers work as it had done in the days when it was part of the city system, Prindle said.
“We had to tell him it does not work that way anymore, now that the zoo is a private contractor,” Prindle said.
Carnival or classroom?
By the end of October 1998 the zoo was in the black for the first time since the society took it over. But with that success has come controversy. Instead of investing in the animals, the society has capitalized on theme rides, such as the merry-go-round, the Puffer Train, and the Tiger Express ride.
Amusement-park attractions and a pricey marketing campaign — costing the zoo almost $3 million from 1995 to 1998 — have brought more visitors to the zoo. That plus higher ticket prices means more money. And Anderson is certain that with this increased revenue, the zoo will ultimately be able to shed its carnival atmosphere and focus on its true mission: education to foster environmental activism among visitors.
But if environmental activism is Anderson’s goal, he has a strange way of showing it. For example, when the zoo brought in a lorikeet exhibit in April 1998, it allowed its sponsors to place a display — a shiny Ford sports utility vehicle — near the site.
“If you’re setting yourself out as an educator, then you’ve got to have a source of funds,” Anderson told the Bay Guardian.
Some of Anderson’s more straightforward forays into environmental education have had trouble. One of his pet conservation projects is the Madagascar Fauna Group, head<\h>quartered at the San Francisco Zoo. Among other things, the group supports the protection of Madasgascar’s Betampona National Reserve and hopes to re-introduce zoo-bred lemurs and other endangered primates, such as aye-ayes, to the island nation’s wilds.
Since 1994, when the society assumed control of the zoo, it has spent $785,222 on its Madagascar projects.
In August 1997 Anderson brought two aye-ayes from Duke University’s primate center to San Francisco. Merlin and Calaban are the only male-female aye-aye pair in any zoo in the United States. Zoo officials hope to breed them.
Anderson speaks proudly of the work the zoo has done to educate people in Madagascar about protecting aye-ayes. But he hasn’t done such a great job protecting the ones in his care.
In Madagascar, aye-ayes spend time more than 60 feet high in the rainforest canopy, where they pull bugs from trees with their long fingers. In San Francisco, they live in an eight-foot-tall glass case.
Male aye-aye Merlin has had an ongoing problem with hair loss on his hind legs. As a result the zoo’s vet put him on steroids periodically from 1997 to 1998. Zoo officials blame the hair loss on two factors: premature separation from his mother, which took place while Merlin was at Duke, and the stress of being introduced to a new female.
Anderson told the Bay Guardian the hair loss wasn’t a big deal; some activists feel differently.
“That’s a shame,” Shirley McGreal, director of the International Primate Protection League, located in South Carolina, told the Bay Guardian. “Those guys cover a good distance of territory in the wild.”
But the aye-ayes haven’t been a huge success with zoogoers either. Aye-ayes are nocturnal creatures and extremely timid; Merlin and his mate, Calaban, rarely leave the shelter of leafy branches. The best chance you’ll get to see an aye-aye at the zoo is in the gift shop, on a sweatshirt or a postcard.
Paying the price
Luckily for the society, hardly any of its donors know about how the zoo animals live; it’s hard to woo grants with rusty fences, feces-filled cages, and cramped cement cells. But one funder did find out.
In September 1994, the zoo announced the opening of its $2 million Feline Conservation Center. Keepers had already raised questions about the new facility; some thought it was unsafe for the keepers because the animals could reach through the fence to the service area with their paws and claws.
When zoo administrators brought in Denver Zoo curator John Wortman, he had the same concerns. In his final evaluation to the Zoo Society, written in October 1994, Wortman stated, “I hate to sound like a broken record, but the old safety issue rises again. The repairs should have been made prior to the felines moving unto the enclosures. Fortunately, enough of the lock system functioned and no person or creature was hurt during the shake-down period.”
The keeper at the time, Terry Moyles, was fired by the zoo March 1995. Barthell and other animal advocates suspected he was dismissed because he was outspoken about the inadequacy of the facility; Robinett denied the charge.
In a Jan. 30, 1995, letter to the charitable foundation that was funding the center, Wortman described the Feline Conservation Center as “a poor design and dangerous exhibit for both the animals and the zoo keepers.”
The center’s problems got its funders’ attention. In a Feb. 19, 1999, letter to city auditor Jones, executives from the Redmond, Wash.–based Leonard X. Bosack and Betty M. Kruger Charitable Foundation blasted the zoo.
After the foundation made initial grants of more than $200,000 for the center, the letter states, “the Foundation Board also pledged two payments of $162,000 to be made in 1994 and 1995 contingent on continued progress reports. The Foundation rescinded the pledge of $325,000 in 1995 after years of unsatisfactory response from the Zoo Executive Director and the Board of Directors.”
The letter goes on to lay out how the zoo hired a contracting firm with no experience in building wildlife care facilities, how it wasted funds, and how it ignored the recommendations of its consultant.
“As John Wortman noted, the `major problem was the inability of the S.F. staff to design a modern animal facility,’” the letter stated.
Robinett denies that the zoo staff is to blame. “To say this was a screwup in design — I think that is incorrect,” Robinett told the Bay Guardian. “We have had success [with the center], especially with breeding. It’s been a very good exhibit.”
It is that attitude that makes some people worry about making animals pay the costs of privatization.
Privatization “has not helped animal care,” Ron Lippert, a longtime animal health technician and former member of the city’s Commission on Animal Control and Welfare, told the Bay Guardian. “What privatization has done is allowed the society to do more things on their agenda — without the public scrutiny they had before. It seems like this is [Anderson and the society’s] kingdom and palace, and they want to see how much they can show it off.
“But the bottom line is that with the cold, windy, and wet climate at the zoo, it’s the wrong city. It’s the wrong location. Animals who aren’t used to handling ocean climate have to handle it day in and day out. Maybe we just shouldn’t have a zoo here. The zoo society was supposed to do all this great stuff. But as far as zoos go, this one still sucks.”
Bob Porterfield contributed to this story.