SF zookeepers say officials 'bugged' radio conversations

At first, San Francisco Zoo keepers and other staffers were excited to receive new radios last summer after years of asking.

The new radios have emergency panic buttons zookeepers requested, as well as another feature: a monitoring mode that allows zoo executives to covertly listen to conversations at any time.

Zoo officials deny using the radios’ feature to eavesdrop on workers, and said in a statement Thursday that the monitoring feature has been disabled.

But zookeepers have retained legal counsel and are claiming that months of conversations — including union meetings — may have been “bugged” by zoo executives, in violation of a host of state and federal laws.

The radios are “meant to spy on people. It says so in the manual,” said Tim Jenkins, a union organizer with Teamsters 856, which organizes zookeepers and other staff at the Zoo. “There are scores of laws that this potentially violates.”

Zookeepers pushed for better communications during emergencies following the fatal tiger attack on Christmas Day 2007, when a female Siberian tiger escaped from her enclosure and killed a teen boy.

Panic buttons installed in animal enclosures following the tiger attack repeatedly failed during tests, prompting zookeepers to push for new radios during contentious contract negotiations last spring.

Zookeepers received the new radios, a Motorola model called the Motorbo XPR 7550, in June. Advertised in the manual for the new radios is the remote monitor feature.

“Use the remote monitor feature to turn on the microphone of a target radio,” the manual reads. “No audible or visual indication is given to the target radio. You can use this feature to monitor, remotely, any audible activity surrounding the target radio.”

This means “you can be listened to at any time, and you have no idea,” Jenkins said. “It’s supercreepy.”

Zoo workers say they were made aware of their radios’ remote monitoring ability last week, after a nonunion manager discovered a zoo executive listening to another worker’s conversation and “laughing about” that worker’s speech impediment, Jenkins said Thursday. That conflicts with zoo officials’ account.

Three people had access to radios with the remote listening feature: Zoo Director Tanya Peterson, Vice President of Operations Robert Iccard, and whoever was running central dispatch, a zoo spokeswoman said. In a statement, Peterson said that “zoo management has no interest in monitoring conversations of its employees,” and that remote monitoring was a “vendor feature” that was disabled after she was “made aware” of it in January.

Zoo workers contend that officials only admitted the radios’ listening ability in a meeting Monday. Zoo executives also denied listening to any conversations.

Zookeepers have retained labor attorney Caren Sencer, who said any listening-in when zoo workers had a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as during lunch breaks or union activities, is illegal.

The radio imbroglio is only the latest in a string of incidents that have strained employee-management relations at the zoo.

In the fall, the zoo’s youngest gorilla was crushed to death after she darted underneath a closing hydraulic door at closing time.

Initial statements from Peterson and other zoo officials pointed blame for the tragedy at the zookeeper on duty, who was supposed to maintain visual contact with the gorillas while closing the doors.

Documents later obtained by The San Francisco Examiner revealed that zookeepers had warned zoo officials of blind spots in the aging gorilla enclosure. Corey Hallman, a longtime zookeeper, said the latest incident is “just insane.”

“We’re asking people, Mayor Ed Lee … anyone who loves the zoo, to help us,” he said Thursday. “Management has got to change.”

croberts@sfexaminer.comBay Area NewseavesdroppingSF Zoosnooping

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