Holiday happenings nixed by zoo

Santa Claus and his reindeer are among the casualties of the San Francisco Zoo’s financial troubles.

The zoo is canceling night tours and will limit free Wednesday admission for city residents. It’s also canceling the holiday ice rink and all related events, including the annual visit from Santa.

The cutbacks come as the recession and the fatal Christmas Day tiger mauling of a zoo visitor in 2007 have pummeled the facility’s bottom line. Admission has dropped, visitor spending is down and donors have invested less in the 80-year-old organization.

As a result, the zoo, which is operated by the nonprofit San Francisco Zoological Society, has accrued debt and seen its operating budget shrink from $20.2 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year to a projected $17 million for fiscal year 2010.

The zoo must also pay back more than $2 million owed to the Recreation and Park Department to cover paychecks for city employees that work at the zoo and to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for bills. Earlier this year the zoo said it couldn’t make the payments, but then it made an arrangement with The City.

Now, the organization is offering early retirement options to about 35 of its 225 employees. But only about 18 staffers, most of whom work in the animal division, are likely to accept, and the zoo may have to lay off up to five people, Director Tanya Peterson said.

Still, Peterson said she’s confident the organization is climbing back to financial stability.

“It all comes down to labor costs. By offering early retirement packages, we are eliminating the highest paid employees,” she said.

“Frankly, we have less animals. Less animals mean less staff, less support. We’re combining jobs, so I think people who are here are working harder.”

When Peterson and Chief Financial Officer Wayne Reading presented the zoo’s budget to the Recreation and Park Department last week, Commissioner Michael Sullivan questioned whether the organization would start accruing debt again.

But Reading told the Recreation and Park Commission he was confident about the zoo’s plan and was ready to write the zoo’s first check — to the Rec and Park department on Oct. 1 for $250,000.

Earlier in the meeting, Reading told the commission, “The budget is obviously not unlike any other government agency. But hopefully we have seen the bottom and hopefully we are on our way back up.”

Call of the wild growing fainter

The San Francisco Zoo is tightening its belt across the board. The facility’s operating budget fell to a projected $17 million for the 2010 fiscal year from $20.2 million in fiscal year 2009.

Animal department     F.Y. 2009   F.Y. 2010  % Change
Carnivore/marsupial    836,636    594,350    -29.0
Birds    1,008,471    850,113    -15.7
Primates    929,038    799,381    -14.0
Children's Zoo    918,356    850,156    -7.4
Commissary    770,714    742,013    -3.7
Animal curator    223,578    313,188    40.1

Retail operations
Food service/ice skating rink    152,585    1,200    -99.2
Facility rentals    74,130    41,875    -43.5
Carousel    207,908    118,477    43.0
Merchandise    14,717    11,530    -21.7
Little Puffer Train    202,650    208,089    2.7

Operating expenses:
Night tour membership    63,247    0    -100.0
On-site membership sales    8,688    0     -100.0

Source: San Francisco Zoological Society

Holiday blues

What’s canceled this year at the San Francisco Zoo:

WHAT: A chance to meet Santa’s reindeer and take a spin on the zoo’s ice skating rink
WHEN: Was held daily last year from November through New Year’s Day
SINCE WHEN: This year’s event would have been the fifth annual Reindeer Romp

Source: San Francisco Zoo

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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