On a recent Saturday at the San Francisco Zoo, families ambled through the art deco entryway of the Pachyderm Building. But they were not heading in to see rhinoceroses or hippopotamuses. In fact, there were no animals at all behind the red doors.
Housed inside instead is a temporary exhibit about dinosaurs — one of the first displays that director Tanya Peterson has installed as a learning opportunity beyond wildlife. The exhibit also signals more plans for the future at the zoo, which Peterson said she wants to take from “good” to “great.”
The ambitious plans have the potential to further transform aging facilities into world-class learning exhibits — only years after the zoo found itself on the brink of disaster.
The San Francisco Zoo is an aging facility with large swaths constructed during the 1930s and ’40s with federal Work Progress Administration funds. And though many exhibits built at the time were more than mere cages, most zoos then were simply showcasing wild animals.
In 1993, the San Francisco Zoological Society took over operations and management of the facility’s 125 acres of space under a public-private partnership with The City. The new administration set about upgrading enclosures and building more for new animals. In 1997, voters passed a $48 million bond that allowed for more upgrades, including a new main entrance and wildly popular exhibits such as Grizzly Gulch. Opened in 2007, it brings visitors nearly face-to-face with the bears through a thick glass window. Other changes included a 2004 overhaul of an area near the zoo’s entrance to make the sprawling African Savannah exhibit.
The upgrades and new exhibits were a boon to the zoo, which brought in nearly $2 million during the 2006-07 fiscal year, tax filings show.
DARK DAYS AFTER MAULING
But then came Christmas Day 2007. A Siberian tiger named Tatiana leaped out of her grotto and fatally mauled a 17-year-old boy while also severely injuring two brothers before police shot her to death.
The aftermath of the tiger attack nearly wiped out the zoo financially. It had to spend millions on facility upgrades and legal fees related to the incident. Attendance also plummeted. During the 2007-08 fiscal year, the zoo lost nearly $2 million, according to tax records.
Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo also resigned the summer after the tiger attack. At the time, Peterson was a lawyer at Hewlett-Packard who also served on the zoo’s board of directors — a position she said bred her desire to give back to the community.
After others turned down the leadership position, Peterson stepped up to run what she calls one of San Francisco’s greatest community assets.
Peterson may not seem like an obvious choice to run a zoo since she has little training with animals. She said her respect for animals comes from her mother’s side of the family, all of whom were ranchers. Her animal-caring skills were the basic 4-H and cat-and-dog rescue type.
Now at the helm, the former lawyer has tried to marry ideals from the public sector and nonprofit worlds. While guiding the zoo through the global financial crisis, which has cut into donations, Peterson has been able to stabilize finances to a point where new projects are in the works.
“The last four or five years, we have taken small, careful, concerted reinvestments into the zoo,” Peterson said during a recent interview.
The work has meant examining operating expenses and reassessing ticket prices and donor outreach by the zoological society, Peterson said. Layoffs also have happened.
Jim Lazarus, who served for seven years on the Recreation and Park Commission, which oversees zoo operations, said it has taken a long time to work through the zoo’s issues, but Peterson wouldn’t be the director if she wasn’t doing a good job.
“I think she is a much more adept manager and public face for the zoo,” Lazarus said.
Though private investment has yet to fully rebound, there are bright spots in the zoo’s economic outlook. Last year, annual attendance reached 800,000 again.
“Since the incident with the tiger and the recession, we have been at a 700,000 range,” Peterson said. “To get back to 800,000 has been great.”
The zoo is now rebuilding the children’s playground and planning to rethink the visitor experience.
Instead of the 85 acres of visitor space the zoo now organizes in a wagon-wheel layout, with the spokes leading to different types of animals, the master plan is to divide the facility into geographical hot spots. The first ones scheduled for construction are North and South America.
The clumping of animals by region will allow visitors to see and learn about the animals while also learning about conservation and ecological issues facing each region, Peterson said. Many of the smaller exhibits will be gone in 20 years as the facility uses the broader exhibit space of the African Savannah as a blueprint.
Challenges drawing donors for the long-term upgrades remain.
Lazarus said fundraising is challenging since the zoological society, unlike other nonprofits like the symphony or opera, has had to fundraise for only a few decades.
Most donors give to the zoo because they use the facility, Peterson said, which creates another hurdle.
LOSING KIDS, DONATIONS
Since the zoo is located on the southwestern side of The City, known for cool summer days, drawing visitors can be challenging, Lazarus said. Zoo attendance is strong for people who live on the west side of San Francisco or San Mateo County, he said, but for other residents and tourists staying downtown the trip can be a trek.
The visitor base also changes as kids grow up, Peterson said; attendance figures show that families tend to drift away once children hit the preteen years, she said.
“What we need to discuss with other types of groups is the conservation, the care,” she said. “Zoos are the last haven for a lot of endangered species. So if you care about global conservation, you’ve got safe harbors in these zoos.”
Peterson acknowledged that there’s room to improve the understanding of other conservation work the zoo does, such as breeding endangered animals, along with thinking about high-tech additions. She said adding tech-focused exhibits alongside the African Savannah could show what such a place would look like if certain now-extinct animals still roamed the earth.
Standing alongside the savannah exhibit, a place in the zoo where Peterson said she and other visitors seem to find peace, she spoke enthusiastically about the special events the zoo has been holding to attract more families and younger people, and also of plans to keep temporary exhibits rolling through the Pachyderm Building.
Peterson also spoke of the zoo as it was first envisioned — a park that has always strived to be a treasure of San Francisco.
“This is firstly a preserve and a park, a beautiful park,” she said. “And it is a unique way in an urban environment to connect with wildlife.”