YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Concrete Jungle

Election: San Francisco voters will decide Tuesday on a bond measure to give aging zoo $48 million. Some critics would rather see new management.


SAN FRANCISCO — Roly, the geriatric pygmy hippo, lives in a small slice of aging suburbia here at the edge of the Pacific Ocean--a concrete cage with peeling paint and postage-stamp swimming pool.

Minnie and Tallulah loll listlessly on 160 square feet of concrete island surrounded by a moat and topped by a jungle gym, the closest thing to a jungle these middle-age chimps have ever seen. Secretive Thelma, meanwhile, finds an orangutan's needed privacy underneath a garbage can.

As San Francisco loudly trumpets its Renaissance, its zoo remains mired in the Dark Ages, one of the neediest such institutions in California today. Many animals are old, most exhibits are even older--throwbacks to a time when zoos meant finger-pointing entertainment, not education and conservation, according to the zoo's management and supporters.

"Most cities in this country had a good portion of their exhibits built in the '30s during the Works Progress Administration," said zoo Director David Anderson. "Almost every city in the country has renovated or torn down its 1930s exhibits. San Francisco never did it."

Now, the zoo is banking on a $48-million bond measure, which San Franciscans will consider in a special election Tuesday, to bring it up to date. Two-thirds of the voters must approve Proposition C for the zoo to get the infusion of bond money.

As they say in the giraffe enclosure, the race is neck and neck.

Critics agree that improvements are needed, but suggest that the biggest changes should be new management and a dose of fiscal responsibility.

"Under this management, they lack administrative skill, fiscal prudence and an animal welfare priority," said Susanne Barthell, a retired social worker who founded and heads the National Council for Excellence in Zoo Animal Management. "They need to learn to live within their budget."

Callers to a local radio talk show Thursday echoed many of Barthell's concerns, saying the aging facility needs improving, but voicing some distrust of those who manage it.

County Supervisor Leland Yee agrees that the city needs--and does not have--"a world-class zoo." But he refuses to support the bond measure before a full management and financial audit of the zoo is done. Yee and Barthell both contend that the zoo's management has not fulfilled its fund-raising responsibilities.

"I absolutely agree that the zoo needs money," Yee said. "The question is, when we give them the money are they going to be able to use it wisely and carry out their obligations for fund-raising, or is this a back-door way to deal with their fund-raising shortfall?"


Tuesday's election--in which voters also will decide on bond measures to help the schools and build a new stadium for the 49ers football team--is just the latest chapter in the zoo's long and troubled history.

The 75-acre facility was built some 60 years ago, complete with concrete grottoes and pens that were state-of-the art for the early 20th century.

But as the environmental movement grew and zoos began the shift from recreation to conservation, most facilities embarked on renovation programs, Anderson said. Run by the city, the zoo endured half a century of neglect. No major capital improvements were made and budgets were slashed.

By 1992, the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. declared the zoo "disgraceful" during an inspection and threatened to pull the facility's accreditation.

"The main problem is the lack of adequate funding from the city to maintain a professionally run institution," the association said in its report. "Many of the physical facilities are literally disgraceful to a city the stature of San Francisco. Animal care procedures are excellent, given the poor maintenance and antiquated facilities."

At the time, the zoo was run by the city Recreation and Parks Department, and the association suggested that financing and operation of the zoo be turned over to the San Francisco Zoological Society.

When the society took control in 1993, it agreed to raise $25 million for capital improvements, and the city promised to put a bond measure of at least $25 million on the ballot. On Tuesday, voters will consider a $48-million measure.

Barthell and Yee contend that the zoo has not raised enough money to adhere to the agreement, which is up for renewal later this year. The zoo contends that its general fund-raising efforts are on schedule and that it has raised $12.7 million for capital improvements.

Ralph Waterhouse, director of Fresno's Chaffee Zoo, visited the San Francisco Zoo in 1992 as the chairman of the accreditation committee that gave the facility a thumbs down. He first had seen the zoo some 20 years earlier.

Between his two visits, "so much of the zoo had not changed," he said. "The rest of the zoo profession nationally was moving ahead toward much more naturalistic exhibits and larger exhibits."

Thelma, Minnie, Tallulah and Roly--along with Tinkerbell the elephant--were living on concrete in very small enclosures.

Los Angeles Times Articles