MEDIA RELEASE: Pandas: Residents Demand an End to “Business as Usual” at San Francisco Zoo

MEDIA RELEASE: Pandas: Residents Demand an End to “Business as Usual” at San Francisco Zoo

SAN FRANCISCO (June 21, 2024) —  In Defense of Animals, Panda Voices, SF Zoo Watch, and Bay Area citizens demanded accountability and a focus on the welfare of existing animals and staff at San Francisco Zoo during the Joint Zoo Committee and the Recreation & Park Committee meeting in City Hall on Thursday, June 20. The meetings follow a San Francisco Chronicle investigation which revealed decades of devastating failures and the approval of Mayor London Breed’s controversial private funding plan to acquire giant pandas from China by 2025, despite ethical concerns raised by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and over 7,200 concerned citizens.

San Francisco Zoo Director Tanya Peterson was slated to answer questions raised by the investigation in May’s Joint Zoo Committee meeting, but it was canceled. No accountability items were on the June agenda and Peterson was absent. 

Commissioner Larry Mazzola said Peterson has committed to join the meeting after the conclusion of an independent investigation into dozens of staff concerns. The zoo’s union has called on the zoo’s board to address the “punitive/retaliatory culture,” and lack of oversight and accountability on safety issues.

“It was shocking to see San Francisco Zoo and the Department of Recreation and Parks carry on ‘business as usual’ when their house is clearly on fire,” said Fleur Dawes, of In Defense of Animals. “We are grateful that so many San Francisco Bay Area residents filled the meeting room with calls for accountability and real change at the San Francisco Zoo. Animal intake should cease immediately, especially the import of highly sensitive giant pandas who will suffer from lack of basic care and facilities at San Francisco Zoo.”

In Defense of Animals, SF Zoo Watch and Panda Voices, with strong support from the San Francisco Bay Area community, have given public testimony in meetings and at the offices of the mayor and supervisors to underscore the devastating animal neglect, staff safety issues, mismanagement, danger, and financial failures at San Francisco Zoo. They assert that the plan to bring pandas to San Francisco Zoo would be disastrous and are working to prevent it from happening.

Mayor Breed did not address any of these critical issues when announcing the panda loan from China. Her plan to raise $25 million from private donors is contentious in itself, causing Supervisors Peskin and Hillary Ronen to vote against an amendment to roll back an anti-corruption measure. Peskin commented that asking for money from businesses lobbying the city “doesn't feel right.”

Pandas will likely cost at least $60 million and up to $85 million over a 10-year loan period:

  • Upwards of $35 million to construct the new exhibit and temporary holding.
  • $1-2 million annual rental fee to China for the 10-20 year lease period.
  • $1.5-3 million expenses like food, medicine, animal care staff, facilities maintenance, insurance, permits, and others can cost around $1.5 million per year. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. pays $2.8 million annually to maintain its panda program. 
  • ($400,000 per year extra lease fee to China if the panda pair has a baby.)

The zoo has consistently failed to fund the upkeep of its historic buildings, causing costs to spiral from $7 million to $20 million over a 9 year renovation delay for Mother’s Building alone. Bringing pandas will add millions in expenses to the zoo’s financial burden. Pandas usually cost zoos more in expenses than they generate in revenue, leading to financial burdens that San Francisco cannot afford. Edinburgh Zoos decided not to renew its loan and Ahtari Zoo in Finland is considering returning pandas years early, owing to the extreme expense.

San Francisco cannot afford any future general fund bailouts caused by bringing pandas to the zoo. The city is facing an $800 million budget shortfall over the next two years and significant cuts are expected to shut down key public services. The city's resources are needed to address critical issues like public health, education, and safety, rather than bailing out the zoo’s finances. 

Some buildings at San Francisco Zoo are 100 years old and facilities are crumbling. Maintenance has been deferred for years and enclosures have proven unsafe for animals, staff, and visitors. Kabibe, a young gorilla, was crushed by a hydraulic door malfunction. A young penguin was decapitated by a guillotine door. The zoo’s troubling legacy includes the infamous escape and death of Tatiana the tiger who killed a teenager, as well as thefts of Banana Sam and Maki, and the deaths of numerous animals due to infrastructure failures. These incidents are merely the tip of the iceberg in a long history of neglect and unsafe conditions at the zoo.

This troubling pattern has persisted for decades, with a recent incident involving Kiona, a grizzly bear, who opened an apparently-locked door and chased her keeper, highlighting the ongoing issues.

Despite being at odds with policies of modern zoo-rescues like Oakland Zoo, San Francisco Zoo is planning to house the pandas in a temporary facility which will likely cause the pandas to suffer similarly. Plans for new exhibits have dragged on for years. Orangutans Berani and Judy endured two years in a temporary enclosure built in the 1950s, with low ceilings, inadequate space, and poor conditions. They spent most of their time indoors while discarded food, tangled blankets, and their waste piled up. Andean condors arrived eight years ago, but construction of their exhibit still hasn't started. The Lipman Family Madagascar Center, begun in 2018, remains unfinished.

A significant number of keepers have resigned, citing management's negligence towards both animal and staff safety. An overwhelming 97% of the zoo's union members recently voted no confidence in the CEO. 

The animal organizations aim to: 

  • Halt the $35+ million panda exhibit plan.
  • Urge the city to terminate the management contract with the San Francisco Zoological Society and seek new leadership committed to prioritizing the welfare of its animal inhabitants.
  • Implement the 2008 recommendation from the Animal Control and Welfare Commission to transition the zoo into a rescue and rehabilitation facility.
  • Establish an oversight commission focused on animal welfare, endowed with robust authority.
  • End the zoo's continual trading of animals and cease breeding programs that do not contribute to the restoration of wild populations. Instead, focus on providing a sanctuary for animals in need, protecting natural habitats, and supporting conservation efforts.

“Due to the extreme issues at San Francisco Zoo and the misguided and irresponsible plan to bring pandas there, we are strongly urging decision makers to halt this plan and use the massive funding to repair and improve the zoo’s facilities which are already in dire need of attention,” said Marilyn Kroplick M.D., President of In Defense of Animals. 

“The San Francisco Zoo is in utter disrepair, a glaring symbol of failure under current management,” said Justin Barker of SF Zoo Watch. “This inept leadership has not only failed its animals and staff, but has also betrayed the trust of San Francisco residents. Gruesome deaths, blatant animal neglect, deferred infrastructure projects, and a total lack of vision for a modern zoo are just the tip of the iceberg. It is high time for someone to take responsibility for these decades-long failures.”

A spokesperson from Panda Voices added, “The panda tragedy at the Memphis Zoo, leading to YaYa’s appalling condition and LeLe’s death, showed the whole world the great harm that zoo’s negligence and incompetence can do to giant pandas. San Francisco Zoo, which has a long history of animal neglect, animal deaths, and gross mismanagement, is not suitable at all to host giant pandas and provide the highly specialized care they demand. How can they give the appropriate care to the pandas, if they are not even able to guarantee the safety and welfare of their current animals? They should focus on an entire renewal and change of mentality, instead. We do not want to see another panda disaster like the one in Memphis happening again in the United States.”

Members of the public are encouraged to sign the alert urging decision-makers to halt the panda plan:


### NOTES ###


In Defense of Animals, Fleur Dawes,, 415-879-6879
Brittany Michelson,, 928-420-0727
SF Zoo Watch, Justin Barker,, 916-838-3330

IMAGES & VIDEO of pandas, animals at San Francisco Zoo, and advocates/demonstrations (more available on request):



In Defense of Animals is an international animal rescue and protection organization with over 250,000 supporters and a 40-year history of defending animals, the environment, and their guardians through education and campaigns, as well as hands-on rescue facilities in India, South Korea, rural Mississippi, and California.

Panda Voices is an organization created in early 2021 by an international group of panda fans from Asia, Europe & The Americas, brought together by concerns over pandas YaYa & LeLe, which began years before. The organization is committed to give voice to the voiceless and promote the humane treatment of animals in captivity through advocacy and services.

SF Zoo Watch is committed to exposing negligence and mismanagement at the San Francisco Zoo. We fight for the safety and ethical treatment of animals and workers, pushing for transparency and accountability. Join us in demanding a safer, more humane San Francisco Zoo.


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