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Activists ramp up pressure on SF Zoo amid ongoing investigation

SF Supervisors to vote on funding for mayor's panda pet project
SF Supervisors to vote on funding for mayor's panda pet project 03:23

San Francisco's Joint Zoo Committee meeting planned to discuss business as usual on Thursday but animal activists concerned about the San Francisco Zoo's alleged safety hazards for its animals and employees put pressure on the committee to make changes.

"Conditions are so bad that zookeepers are willing to risk their careers to raise awareness on the zoo's condition," said Justin Barker, founder of SF Zoo Watch, an organization that aims to bring the zoo's alleged negligence of animals and workers to light.

"We have major issues at the San Francisco Zoo that must be addressed. It's urgent because it's not just an animal welfare concern, it's a safety concern for staff and the public," Barker said.

Activists who have spoken out said that many facilities and enclosures at the zoo are crumbling and require renovation. This outdated infrastructure poses risks for animals and staff, said Fleur Dawes, communications director for In Defense of Animals, an animal rescue and protection organization.

Following a San Francisco Chronicle publishing of an article containing troubling allegations involving the zoo, an independent investigation was launched five weeks ago and is still underway, said Corey Hallman, a representative of the zoo's 95-member labor union, Teamsters Local Union 856.

The Joint Zoo Committee maintained that the zoo's accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is an esteemed indication of its commitment to ensuring proper care of animals and upkeep of its facilities. Zoos can receive AZA accreditation after thorough evaluation by experts in the field who determine that the zoo's operations meet established standards.

The Joint Zoo Committee consists of three members of the San Francisco Zoological Society's board of directors and three members of the city's Recreation and Park Commission who meet to discuss and hear public comment regarding major policies affecting the zoo.

The last time the committee met was two months ago, the day after the Chronicle article came out, said Larry Mazzola, a member of the city's Recreation and Park Commission.

"The zoological society has hired a lawyer and it's an ongoing investigation into the issues the employees have raised," Mazzola said.

Tanya Peterson, the zoo's CEO and executive director, planned to be present at Thursday's meeting. However, she did not show up because her lawyers advised her not to come until the investigation is done, Mazzola said.

"These allegations bother me," Mazzola said. "At some point we will get to the bottom of this."

The rise in outspoken uncertainty about the zoo's ability to provide sufficient care and a safe environment for its animals and zookeepers was also sparked by Mayor London Breed's plan to host two giant pandas from China at the zoo. A petition to stop the mayor's panda project has over 11,000 signatures.

Some members of animal welfare organizations believe that major change is needed at the top of San Francisco government if they would like to see any difference made at the zoo.

"I think that the best hope for stopping not only the panda plan but also creating real change at the San Francisco Zoo is Aaron Peskin," Barker said. "For years he's had strong opinions about the city's contract with the zoo."

The effort to bring pandas to the zoo has been spearheaded by Breed. But not everyone on the Board of Supervisors has expressed strong interest in her plan during board meetings.

Peskin was one of two supervisors who voted no to Breed's request to seek funding for her panda project using private donations during the board's meeting on June 11. Peskin is running against Breed for mayor ahead of November's election.

Animal advocates want to see the zoo make significant changes before they bring in more animals, let alone pandas, which require exceptional care due to their hypersensitivity, Dawes said.

"My mother used to say, 'You can't have anymore guests over until you clean up the mess,'" said Oscar Allen, a representative of animal advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere.

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