Dark cloud hangs over S.F. Zoo following tiger escape

Dropping attendance rates, overflowing maintenance costs and low employee morale were part of a bleak forecast described Thursday by San Francisco Zoo officials, who are dealing with heightening budget problems as they search for a new executive director.

After a Siberian tiger fatally mauled a zoo visitor on Christmas Day, operations at the facility have devolved into a “full mess,” according to Nick Podell, chairman of the San Francisco Zoological Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees day-to-day operations at the zoo.

“We need to stabilize morale and straighten out our finances before we start a nationwide search,” Podell told the Recreation and Park Commission on Thursday.

Tanya McVeigh Peterson, a member of the zoo society’s board of directors, has been acting as the interim director after Manuel Mollinedo resigned.

Podell said work to repair some structures — brought to light after the Christmas Day escape of the tiger — forced the organization to spend an entire year’s maintenance budget in just two months.

Through May, the zoo spent $1.6 million this fiscal year — which runs from July to June — on maintenance operations, going $500,000 over its budget, according to zoo officials. That figure doesn’t include a $1.8 million bond released by the Recreation and Park Department to pay for upgrades at the tiger grotto.

The zoo society had intended on presenting its budget for the upcoming fiscal year at Thursday’s Recreation and Park Commission meeting, but recent setbacks have delayed the release of that document until a further date, according to Podell.

Further compounding matters is the zoo’s low attendance, which is more than 100,000 visitors behind the 2007 pace, according to the zoo spokeswoman Lora Lamarca.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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