MEDIA RELEASE: Supervisor Vote Endangers Pandas & Taxpayers

MEDIA RELEASE: Supervisor Vote Endangers Pandas & Taxpayers

Mayor Breed Has Been Cleared to Solicit Private Funds, Moving Pandas One Step Closer to San Francisco Zoo’s Failing Financial Sinkhole

SAN FRANCISCO (June 11, 2024) — On June 11, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve Mayor London Breed’s controversial funding plan for the acquisition of giant pandas for the San Francisco Zoo. Representatives from In Defense of Animals and SF Zoo Watch presented board members and the mayor with a letter signed by over 7,200 concerned citizens opposing the plan and urging a no vote.

“San Francisco leadership has a responsibility to prioritize animal welfare and stop the ongoing deplorable conditions,” said Justin Barker, founder of SF Zoo Watch. “Instead, city leaders have failed the zoo's animals in their care by bypassing ethics laws and pushing a misguided plan to bring pandas to a struggling San Francisco Zoo.”

“Given the severe animal welfare and financial issues, along with a facility that is in dire need of an overhaul, the San Francisco Zoo is utterly unfit to house pandas,” said Brittany Michelson, Campaign Specialist for Captive Animals at In Defense of Animals. “If China sends pandas to this zoo, it will be catastrophic. We will keep pressing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor Breed to abandon the panda plans and instead address the myriad existing problems at the zoo.”

In Defense of Animals, with strong support from the San Francisco Bay Area community, brought the campaign to the offices of each supervisor and Mayor Breed to underscore the grave animal welfare, financial, and management concerns. While Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Hillary Ronen opposed the amendment, the majority unfortunately voted in favor.

The San Francisco Zoological Society is in the throes of a dire financial crisis, reporting a staggering $2.24 million deficit for the 2023 fiscal year — amounting to a monthly loss of $187,000. Temporary surpluses in 2021 and 2022, bolstered by PPP loan forgiveness and other grants, masked deeper financial instability and have now given way to a dramatic revenue plunge and skyrocketing deficits. The zoo’s use of accounting tricks to showcase "unrealized gains" raises serious transparency concerns, masking the harsh reality of operational losses and financial mismanagement.

Compounding these issues is the zoo's controversial plan for a multi-million dollar panda exhibit, which, along with adding millions to the zoo’s annual costs, threatens to create a fiscal black hole for decades. Bringing pandas to the zoo could potentially necessitate future general fund bailouts by the City and County of San Francisco.

Mayor Breed's eagerness to acquire pandas highlights a troubling disregard for the zoo’s existing animals and staff, diverting crucial resources from urgent issues. Immediate action is essential to address decades of mismanagement which have been detailed by whistleblowers in an investigative report by the San Francisco Chronicle

Serious issues at San Francisco Zoo include: 

Animal Welfare Crisis: 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. 

Staff Safety Neglected: 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. 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.

Financial Mismanagement: The San Francisco Zoological Society is in financial freefall. Bringing pandas will add millions more in annual costs. Zoos usually incur millions more in expenses than they generate in revenue from panda exhibitions, leading to financial burdens that San Francisco cannot afford. Zoos in Scotland and Finland have found that while pandas may bring an initial boost in ticket sales, expenses outstrip revenue. Ahtari Zoo in Finland is considering returning the pandas years early, owing to extremely high costs to host them.

Failed Infrastructure & Deferred Maintenance: The San Francisco Zoo facilities are extremely old, and maintenance has been deferred for years, leading one zoo volunteer to describe the place as a “junkyard.” Enclosures are unsafe for animals, staff and visitors. Keeping animals in ageing facilities which are not purpose-built has led to animal deaths and jeapordized keeper safety. When the zoo does fundraise for new exhibits, they have dragged on for years, leaving animals suffering in temporary holding facilities. Orangutans Berani and Judy endured two years in a temporary enclosure built in the 1950s, with low ceilings, inadequate space, and poor conditions, spending most of their time indoors with discarded food, tangled blankets, and their waste piled up. 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.

Lack of Transparency: The zoo has repeatedly flouted public records laws and breached its contract with the city by failing to share internal records with citizens. Management’s smoke-and-mirrors tactics hide the true extent of operational losses and mismanagement. Mayor Breed’s plan to solicit private donations is open to corruption.

Mayor Breed did not address any of these critical issues when announcing the panda loan from China. Panda costs far exceed the $25 million the mayor proposes to solicit from private donors:

  • 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.

LeLe (right) died prematurely at the Memphis Zoo after suffering broken teeth and an insufficent supply of quality bamboo. YaYa survived and was sent back to China where she has greatly recovered from a skin condition that plagued her in the U.S. Photos: Panda Voices 

A representative of Panda Voices highlighted how neglect can be lethal, citing the death of giant panda LeLe at Memphis Zoo last year. She said, “We cannot let San Francisco Zoo put pandas in a temporary enclosure and let them suffer similarly. If San Francisco Zoo cannot complete the new habitat within a year, they shouldn't bring pandas in 2025. Change must happen from the top down, with wildlife welfare as the priority.”

Members of the public are encouraged to sign the letter urging decisionmakers to halt the panda plan:


### NOTES ###


  • In Defense of Animals, Brittany Michelson,, 928-420-0727
  • SF Zoo Watch, Justin Barker,, 916-838-3330

WATCH (video available soon):

IMAGES & VIDEO of pandas and advocates are 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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