It's expensive to raise and care for the elephants, gorillas, gerenuks and scores of other exotic animals that make their homes at the Los Angeles Zoo. The $26-million annual operating cost covers not just vet bills and monkey chow but the salaries, pensions and benefits of more than 200 employees. For decades, the zoo has been run by the city of Los Angeles, first as a division of the Department of Recreation and Parks and now as a separate department. The city currently contributes about $14.6 million in funds. And the cost of operating the zoo is only expected to increase.
So, as several other cities have done, Los Angeles is considering turning over management of the facility to a private operator as a way to decrease the city's subsidy. The site in Griffith Park, the buildings and the animals would remain the property of the city.
There are many details to work out in a transition from a city-run to a privately run zoo — and this is not a done deal yet by any means. However, the City Council will soon approve criteria for private management and vote on whether to begin the process of soliciting proposals from prospective operators.
If the city decides to go forward, one absolutely nonnegotiable requirement must be that the new operator maintain the standards of animal care that are already in place. The city's draft Request for Proposal states prominently that the operator "must maintain the integrity of the L.A. Zoo as a world-class zoo and commit to manage and operate the L.A. Zoo as an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."
That's a crucial statement, but it's not enough. An operator must also be held to at least the same — and possibly higher — standards of openness and accountability to the City Council and the public that the zoo as a city agency is now held to. In the past decade, transfers of animals to other zoos, controversial exhibits, plans for natural disasters, the unexpected deaths of two elephants and the decision to retire another to a sanctuary were all issues that L.A. Zoo officials have had to handle and explain — sometimes under pressure from city officials or the news media.
Information and records having to do with the care and condition of zoo animals should be accessible to the public. And the zoo should have a board of directors to which zoo managers report on a regular basis, in public meetings. (The zoo currently has an advisory board of commissioners whose meetings are open to the public.)
All this should be stated clearly in the city's Request for Proposal.
When the managers of the zoo have been open about issues, they have not only survived scrutiny, but have been able to do their jobs and contribute significantly to the ongoing public debate about the role of zoos in the 21st century. That transparency should be mandated for any private operator.