San Francisco Zoo Closes Doors to Elephants

Special to The Times

As preparations continue to move the last ailing elephant from the city’s zoo, officials say it will be years before visitors see another.

The elephant exhibit is scheduled to close once Lulu, a 38-year-old African pachyderm with chronic health problems, is moved to a sanctuary run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society in the Sierra foothills.

She is the fourth elephant to die or move this year from the antiquated half-acre exhibit. And until the zoo can provide a new elephant enclosure of at least 15 acres, it may not acquire any more, city supervisors decided in an ordinance approved last week.


Supervisors also ordered zoo officials to refurbish the enclosures for polar bears, rhinos, hippos, seals and sea lions before seeking approval for a new elephant exhibit.

“It is, in effect, a de facto ban” on any new elephant exhibit at the 120-acre zoo, said Sean Elsbernd, the only supervisor to vote against the ordinance. “We’re just not going to have elephants at the zoo.”

Animal rights activists hailed the vote as a major victory in their continuing campaign to force zoos across the nation to improve their elephant exhibits or send the animals to private refuges in California and Tennessee.

“While no urban environment can meet the vast space requirements of elephants, the new San Francisco standards are an important first step in forcing the zoo to recognize and address the complex needs of elephants,” said Elliot Katz, a veterinarian and president of In Defense of Animals, based in Mill Valley. “We hope it sparks a national trend of city involvement to force zoos to prioritize the health and well-being of animals over business interests.”

The supervisors’ decision comes after months of tension between elected officials and the zoo’s administrators. In Defense of Animals and other groups have been campaigning for more than five years to close the zoo’s elephant exhibit.

The dispute became more heated last April when Maybelle, a 44-year-old African elephant with numerous health problems, collapsed and died. Less than seven weeks earlier, Calle, a 37-year-old Asian, was euthanized by zoo workers because of her deteriorating health, including degenerative joint disease, a history of tuberculosis and an old injury suffered in a highway crash in Mexico when she was a performer in a traveling circus. Before being moved to San Francisco, Calle spent two years at the Los Angeles Zoo.


Elephants, experts say, often live 50 to 70 years in the wild.

Last month, Tinkerbelle, a 38-year-old Asian, was moved to the animal welfare society’s 2,300-acre private nonprofit sanctuary in Calaveras County, where Lulu soon will join her.

Manuel Mollinedo, director of the zoo, said he doesn’t believe the supervisors’ vote means a permanent end to elephants in San Francisco.

“Putting [elephants] in a 15-acre exhibit would put us on the cutting edge of zoos nationwide” if money to build such an enclosure could be found, he said.

As a first step, Mollinedo said he would ask the supervisors to spend $7 million, which the zoo has left from a $48-million zoo bond issue approved in the mid-1990s, to upgrade the polar bear and other exhibits.

In a performance audit of the zoo in 2000, the city’s budget analyst said those facilities were substandard.

Mollinedo, who has headed the San Francisco Zoo for 10 months, most recently was general manager of the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks and was director of the L.A. Zoo from 1995 to 2002.

He said he also was optimistic that the San Francisco Zoological Society could raise several million dollars from private sources to build an elephant enclosure. The Zoological Society operates the zoo under contract with the city.

The zoo has about 40 acres currently used for storage that could be used for a new elephant home, he said.

With the departure of Lulu, the San Francisco Zoo will be without an elephant on display for the first time in its 75-year history.