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The broken and neglected San Francisco Zoo is no place for giant pandas

Putting pandas in San Francisco will create a fiscal black hole at the expense of other animals and zoo staff. Here’s what the city should do instead

A forlorn panda sits in a rain-soaked, derelict lot overlooking a brightly lit cityscape at night.
Source: AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

By Justin Barker

The roly-poly charm of giant pandas is undeniable. With their black-and-white fur, chubby cheeks and soulful eyes, it's no wonder these playful bamboo chompers capture our hearts. AI couldn’t have conjured up a creature more likely to delight small children and parents alike.

However, in real life, giant pandas are delicate creatures that are costly to maintain. And unfortunately, the San Francisco Zoo is utterly unprepared to manage the realities of caring for these animals.

The fact is, the San Francisco Zoo is broken. Current management has failed its animals, its staff and San Francisco residents. The city and the Bay Area deserve a zoo that puts animals first, run by a proactive management team that is ethical, transparent and accountable. That is not the zoo that we currently call our own.

Last week, Mayor London Breed announced that she secured a pair of pandas from the Chinese government for the city-owned San Francisco Zoo. As cherished symbols of China, they hold special significance here, in a city where over 20% of the population claims Chinese heritage.

But shortly before Breed’s announcement, the San Francisco Chronicle published a damning exposé on the state of affairs at the zoo. Kiona, a grizzly bear, broke free from her primary containment area and chased his keeper. Berani and Judy, orangutans, endured two years confined to rat-infested indoor cages with scant outdoor access. And a high number of keepers have quit, with some citing management's lack of concern for the safety of both animals and staff.

None of this is new—quite the opposite, these incidents are part of a decadeslong pattern. Since 2007, when Tatiana, a tiger, escaped her enclosure and killed a 17-year-old zoo visitor before dying in a hail of police gunfire, the zoo has been marred by instances of disregard for animal welfare and lapses in safety and mismanagement. These episodes have been compounded by issues of antiquated infrastructure and deferred responsibility. Frequently, the zoo does not seem to fix a problem until after a dangerous incident or animal death has occurred.

The list of incidents includes the thefts of Banana Sam, a squirrel monkey, and Maki, a ring-tailed lemur, and the tragic death of Kabibe, a young gorilla crushed by a hydraulic door malfunction. Zoo management was once accused of using keepers’ radios to spy on them, a claim the executive director denied. Additionally, the zoo has flouted local and state public records laws and breached its contract with the city by failing to share internal records with citizens. In the last few years alone, a kangaroo and two wallaroos were killed by a wild puma, a 1-year-old penguin named Handy Harry was crushed by a guillotine door and Hasani the gorilla almost escaped his cage due to a door malfunction.

Breed did not address any of these issues in announcing the panda loan from China, only saying, “We need to make sure that we are prepared to receive them so when they do come to San Francisco, their environment, their food, their support will allow for them to be healthy and to thrive.”

But zoos usually incur millions more in expenses than they generate in revenue from panda exhibitions. Just ask Washington's National Zoo, the Atlanta Zoo or the San Diego Zoo, which have all grappled with the exorbitant costs associated with housing pandas. Despite the initial spikes in attendance once pandas arrive, zoo visitor numbers revert to normal levels over time. 

The sums are eye-watering: The executive director of the San Francisco Zoo estimated a new panda exhibit will cost $25 million to construct. That does not include the $1 million to $2 million annual lease agreement on the animals themselves, nor a typical $100,000 annual research allocation to China, a $50,000-per-year panda life insurance policy, $500,000 a year to feed and care for the animals, plus a one-time "baby tax" of $600,000 if a cub is born. China’s cuddliest diplomats could open a fiscal black hole for the city.

Breed’s eagerness to acquire pandas for the zoo further underscores management's disregard for its animals. Spending upward of $35 million on a five-year panda residency will divert crucial resources away from improving conditions for the zoo's existing animals, or investing in better compensation and training for its staff. Corporate sponsors will flock to be associated with the ursine pair (Salesforce Pandas, anyone?), but what about fixing the zoo’s very real problems in its other exhibits?

San Francisco must take decisive action. First and foremost, cancel the pandas. While this may be embarrassing for the mayor, it is far better to do so than risk another tragedy occurring in the run-up to their arrival. Not to mention the horrific yet entirely possible risk of an incident or death of one of the pandas themselves occurring on the city's watch.

Next, terminate the management contract with the San Francisco Zoological Society and find new leaders who will unequivocally prioritize the welfare of our animal inhabitants. The Conservation Society of California, which runs Oakland’s zoo as one of the most progressive in the country, comes to mind.

The city should also establish an oversight commission focused on animal welfare, endowed with robust authority. The existing Joint Zoo Commission, which includes the Recreation and Parks commissioners and Zoological Society board members, has acted like a rubber stamp.

Finally, the city should follow through on the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare’s 2008 recommendation to transition the zoo to a rescue and rehabilitation facility. The San Francisco Zoo should cease its endless trading of animals and end breeding programs that do not restore wild populations. Instead, it should prioritize providing a refuge for animals in need, working to protect habitats and contribute to conservation efforts.

By enacting these measures, our zoo would embrace our city's namesake—St. Francis de Assisi, patron saint of animals—committing to improving the well-being of animals that call our city home, along with those far beyond our borders.

This story has been corrected with the gender of Kiona the grizzly bear and to state that Handy Harry the penguin was killed by a guillotine door, not a hydraulic gate.

Justin Barker is a San Francisco-based TV producer, activist and author of "Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free." He recently launched SF Zoo Watch, a platform advocating for change at San Francisco Zoo. Barker's activism began at the age of 13 when he founded Citizens Lobbying for Animals in Zoos, championing the rights of animals in captivity.

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