Commission: Zoo should switch focus 

The San Francisco Zoo should consider becoming an animal-rescue center, or adding a wildlife-rehabilitation clinic, according to a draft plan the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare will study today.

The zoo’s 2007 master-plan update calls for the addition of a botanical garden and seaside nature trail, but animal-welfarecommissioners worry that such projects could detract from the zoo’s ability to keep animals healthy and happy, according to a report from commissioner Pam Hemphill.

There are "glaring deficiencies in housing and exhibit design," according to Hemphill. Problems with animal enclosures came to light after one of the zoo’s Siberian tigers, Tatiana, escaped her enclosure Dec. 25 and killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr, and mauled two of his friends.

"The tiger is just the tip of the iceberg of problems," said Deniz Bolbol, a Peninsula resident who works closely with In Defense of Animals, a group that brought zoo researchers to the facility in December to study how animals are kept.

Those zoo experts reported a litany of findings, from hungry giraffes nibbling on trees to antelopes and ostriches shivering in a cold January storm.

"People can say what they want," zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said. "I would challenge the credentials of the people making these statements — many animal activists have their own agenda."

The Animal Welfare Commission hopes to assemble a complete list of animal-protection recommendations that it cansend to the Board of Supervisors, according to commission president Sally Stephens. Their top priority will be to see whether there’s consensus on ideas such as rehab or rescue, she said.

Other zoos, including ones in Folsom, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee house wildlife-rehabilitation centers. San Francisco Zoo already performs some rescues, such as grizzly bears, but that is not the agency’s purpose, LaMarca said.

A recent survey of zoo visitors found that 29 percent would like to see improved habitat for the animals, according to a report from Stephens and other commissioners.

"Improvements in animal exhibits will drive attendance up (and therefore zoo revenue) more than any other project," according to the report.

In 2007, the zoo saw its highest attendance — nearly 1.1 million visitors — since the mid-1980s, LaMarca said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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