Struggling zoo’s troubles mount

A cash-strapped San Francisco Zoo kept its doors open when nearly 2½ inches of rain drenched The City last Tuesday, but not a single person walked through the entrance gates.

With gusts of wind blowing up to 56 mph, zoo officials had to pay their staff until they made the executive decision to close for the day around 3:30 p.m. without having brought in any revenue.

The zoo currently faces a deficit of some $3 million, on top of about $2 million in debt, and so on Thursday the Recreation and Park Commission, which oversees the zoo, decided it wants the facility itself to call the shots on hours of operation when the weather becomes wet and windy.

Furthermore, the commission said that to save money, the 80-year-old organization should close at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. from November to March.

“At times, we have less than 10 visitors between those hours,” zoo Director Tanya Peterson said.

It’s unclear how much money the hourly cutback or any future storm closures will save the facility, but zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca estimated the savings at around $3,500 a week.

Since a fatal Christmas Day tiger mauling in 2007 and the recession, admission has dropped, visitor spending is down and donors have invested less in the zoo.

Earlier this year, the facility could not make payments on a $2 million combined tab owed to the Recreation and Park Department to cover the pay of city employees who work at the zoo and to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for bills.

Yet even after working out a payment plan and finding ways to cover most of the legal expenses from the tiger mauling, the zoo is still struggling.

The organization offered early retirement options to about 35 of its 225 employees. Only 18 are expected to accept, Peterson said.

In September, the zoo decided to cancel its fifth annual Reindeer Romp, ice skating rink and winter holiday events.

The cuts in operating hours also mean smaller paychecks for hourly employees.“We’re trying to do, you know, everything that we can with as little pain as possible,” LaMarca said.

There was, however, some silver lining to the cutback in hours: Zoo employees often begin the process of luring the animals into their night enclosures around 3:30 p.m., according to commission President Jim Lazarus.

He requested the zoo keep the animals in their exhibits until 4 p.m. and Peterson assured him that would happen.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

 

The San Francisco Zoo is expecting fewer visitors and its budget has shrunk.

                                                        2009                    2010*    

Zoo’s budget                                $20.2M                $17M
Attendance                                     896,895               865,000
Paying visitors                               473,596               470,273
Membership revenue                 $2,072,298         $2,084,522

*(projected)

Operating expenses
Animal department                      $6,645,314         $6,132,849                 

Source: San Francisco Zoo
 

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