Taking on the Zoo on the Bay: A Conversation with David Anderson, Retired Director of the San Franci

David Anderson's career in zoos paralleled their growing involvement in saving species, first with the development of Species Survival Plans to build sustainable populations of endangered species in human care and later with growing contributions to field projects. After serving as General Curator at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Anderson spent fourteen years at the helm of the San Francisco Zoo. Among his accomplishments there were privatizing the zoo, getting a $40 million bond for capital improvements and significantly growing the zoo's conservation footprint. This is his story.

@ David Anderson

David Anderson began his career working at the Duke University Primate Center, which primarily had lemurs. “It was a prosimian primate center meant for studying the blood genetics of lemurs,” he remembered. “They wanted to get a sense of the evolutionary mechanisms the lemurs developed from being isolated on Madagascar. They were also doing behavioral research on the lemurs and other primates.” Additionally, the center began working with zoos on specific breeding programs.

@ Duke Lemur Center

In 1978, Anderson decided to go to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, a rundown zoo on the cusp of major change. Much of why he chose to go there was because of its young visionary leader, Ron Forman. “There was a really good master plan at Audubon and they had already raised a bunch of money for the first one or two phases,” Anderson recalled. “In talking with Ron Forman, [I could tell] he was very congenial, good at giving people their own head and letting them work autonomously. Audubon asked me to come work for them while the Bronx Zoo, the other zoo I was looking at, was slower at getting back to me. I also liked New Orleans a lot.”

@ Audubon Zoo

Forman, who became Director of the Audubon Zoo at age 27, had big dreams for where it would go. “Ron Forman had a wonderful vision and view of what the zoo could become,” Anderson reflected. “He was almost, in a sense, a developer. Ron had a tremendous knack for fundraising and a great ability to work with city and zoo society officials. He thought in very broad terms and meant to build the place into a very large institution. Ron liked to hire really good people, support them and guide them to where he wanted to go but did not interfere, and let them find their own way. [He didn’t have an animal or conservation background] so I tried to provide some of both for him.”

@ Audubon Zoo

Anderson started at the Audubon Zoo as Curator of Mammals. “The collection was pretty limited as the expansion of the zoo was just beginning,” he elaborated. “We were planning on building it into Africa, Louisiana, Asia and South America. There was a pretty good collection of primates and birds but not many hoofstock or herps. It was very much a WPA zoo- cages with bars and small habitats for the animals. I would have never worked there if I had not seen the plans and the funding for the plans. We opened up multi-acre habitats [one by one] and changed the face of the zoo. We tore down or repurposed most of the WPA buildings, took animals out of cages and built everything new.”

@ Audubon Zoo

The first project done as part of the overhaul of the zoo was Asian Domain, which revolved around an old elephant house. “I worked very closely with the architects, Ace Torre and Jack Cochrin, on designing the habitats,” Anderson stated. “The animal team and I acquired the new animals.” Asian elephants, tigers, Asian lions, leopards, sun bears, Asian birds and Asian hoofstock would round out the rest of Asian Domain, opened in 1979. Next, the zoo built the African Savanna and Primate World, opened in 1980. “We removed all the cages and gave the animals much larger and natural spaces, which was pretty special,” Anderson remarked.

@ Audubon Zoo

“We used a fair amount of rockwork, especially in Asian Domain and Primate World,” Anderson continued. “In the African Savanna, we made very large mixed species habitats. Zoos were just starting to explore mixed species exhibits and we thought it was something that should be done. We mixed rhinos, zebras and secretary birds to create as rich a mix as possible.” In fact, ample acres were acquired by the zoo specifically to build the African savanna. All these improvements created a much nicer zoo for animals and people alike.

@ Audubon Zoo

@ Audubon Zoo

In 1984, the Audubon Zoo opened the award-winning Louisiana Swamp, a recreation of the local bayous and swamps. “We spent a lot of time figuring that out and creating a storyline explaining that we’re in a swamp and the interactions between the animals and people there,” Anderson articulated. “We were able to show the diversity of animals in Louisiana and we had everything we possibly could- mammals, birds, reptiles, fish. We showed them in a way people could see them and feel they were in a natural environment.” The wooded location of the Louisiana Swamp created the perfect environment to immerse guests into it and interpret the region’s wildlife. “A lot of education materials were put out to explain to people what we were doing,” Anderson added. “We had to acquire the animals and went out to the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge on the coast to get alligators.”

@ Audubon Zoo

@ Audubon Zoo

During the 1970s and 1980s, zoos were beginning to rethink who they were and why they existed. “There were a number of really good thinkers who were trying to shift the entire zoo profession from entertainment to conservation,” Anderson reflected. “That took a lot [of effort] and meant looking professionally at how animals were cared for. We were not going to repeatedly get animals from the wild so we began setting up our own breeding programs. Once we decided we were going to have SSPs, that made it necessary to involve geneticists, population demographic scientists and veterinarians who understood diets and reproduction. It is a much more complicated organization when you deal with populations rather than just having a pair of animals.”

@ Audubon Zoo

The Audubon Zoo kept up with this emerging focus on science. “I hired nineteen new staff for the mammal department in the first four to five years,” Anderson remarked. “They had a much different background [than those before as they had] college degrees and had worked with animals rather than just hiring people off the street. We became particular in increasing their expertise and gave them more training. We brought in people to teach them and encouraged them to take classes and seminars. We initiated the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group, the first example of collaborating between zoos and other countries. That was the seed to form Faunal Interest Groups. We were advised by Russ Mittermeier and Mark Plorkin, both at WWF, [on that and] they thought zoos should be more involved with conservation in the field. At Audubon, we embraced that and worked with other zoos to work in other countries not to acquire animals but to help them improve their zoos and work collaboratively on their habitats.”

@ Audubon Zoo

@ Audubon Zoo

Anderson rose to the position of General Curator at the Audubon Zoo. “Being general curator was wonderful as we had a lot of money to rebuild the zoo,” he elaborated. “We were able to put together a great staff. I started off working with prosimians, while now I was working with giraffes, rhinos, flamingos, alligators and everything else. Eventually, we built the reptile building and I got a lot of experience working with herps. When you have a good staff, good support from your director and a great fundraising stream, things are good. However, it’s very hard work. Animals don’t work 9 to 5. It’s a 7 day a week proposition.”

@ Audubon Zoo

@ Audubon Zoo

In 1990, Anderson was looking to become a zoo director. “I thought it would be interesting to run my own zoo at one point,” he remembered. “My wife and I liked the Northwest and decided to see what might open up. San Francisco Zoo opened it.” While San Francisco Zoo had rich history, the task of running it would not be easy. “It was a problematic zoo at the time and several colleagues said I was crazy to consider it,” Anderson noted. “I thought it looked like a good opportunity to put things on the right path.”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

There were a number of challenges that came with the political climate of the San Francisco Zoo. “The zoo was run by the city and it was not well supported with capital funding,” Anderson articulated. “They had a lot of old, old exhibits and didn’t have the money to rebuild them. They also had eleven unions and the situation with them was very poor. Staff relations were not good and they did not have a very good involvement with conservation. The relationship between the city and the zoo society was tense. We had a number of problems to deal with.”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

The first step to making the situation better was switching governance of the zoo from the city to the zoo society. “When I interviewed, I said I would accept the positon under the condition that, within a few years, we would be given the opportunity to privatize the zoo and allow the zoo society to run it,” Anderson explained. “The director of the parks and recreation department agreed to that.” In 1991, the San Francisco Zoo privatized. “Privatization was a very difficult process as the City of San Francisco is very union-organized and the unions didn’t like privatization,” Anderson added. “They think it loosens their strength on an institution. I spent a long time convincing the city and unions we should privatize. We did it by demonstrating the funding to rebuild the zoo could not come only from the city and had to be raised by the zoological society.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Another major step for the zoo was passing a lucrative bond for improvements. “The needs were too great,” Anderson continued. “The reputation of the zoo was not good. because of its older habitats. We finally worked out an agreement where the zoo society would run the zoo, have certain pieces authorized by the city and, at some point, the city would allow us to run a municipal bond. That made a huge difference. We were going to go for the bond measure in 1993 but they already had a number of issues on the ballot and they asked us if we would wait a year. We went back in 1994 and asked for $40 million. A bond measure in San Francisco has to pass by a 2/3s majority, which is very difficult. I gave 122 presentations for that bond. We won by 532 votes, which was pretty close.”

Marianne Hale @San Francisco Zoo

However, much of the bond had to go to infrastructure demands and deferred maintenance rather than new expansions. “It’s very difficult to raise private money for sewer, water and electric lines, which are major issues when running a zoo,” Anderson remarked. “We had to use a chunk of the money to replace all the infrastructure utilities as well as the new entrance, African Savanna, Lemur Forest and other smaller habitats.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Over the years, the San Francisco Zoo struggled with image problems because of antiquated habitats and anti-zoo activists in the area. Anderson worked hard to improve public perception of the zoo. “We had some members of the community that did not accept any improvements at the zoo,” he recalled. “In Defense of Animals told me the best I could do was phase out the animals and replace them with videos. The zoo had image problems but the community was very appreciative of seeing changes in the zoo. We gave much more press to what the zoo was trying to accomplish. We made it clear we were becoming a place deeply involved in conservation and education and building better habitats for the animals. One of the things we knew is if people came to the zoo and their kids said the animals look so sad, we lost the battle. If people think your animals are sad, you haven’t made enough changes to influence the public.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo worked hard to increase its educational footprint. “We tried to involve the public more directly in the activities of the zoo,” Anderson explained. “We increased the junior zookeeper program and added a number of education presentations. We had zookeepers and educators out there to interact with the public and talk about how these animals are ambassadors for the wild. We had a lecture series where we’d bring conservationists to the zoo.”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

Anderson focused on expanding the zoo’s conservation efforts. “We tried to link all the major habitats with a conservation program in the wild,” he remarked. “For instance, we had the Madagascar program and we involved in the Snow Leopard Trust. We worked with the EarthWatch Institute to send staff members into the field a couple of times a year. It was a combination of direct involvement with conservation programs, getting our staff overseas and working with AZA. We were getting involved in other institutions in understanding conservation psychology, what it meant to have an audience and how we could shift our large audience from passive appreciation to active involvement in conservation. That became a very complex effort and it took a lot of work. I hope they are continuing that critical work.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Lemur Forest also connected with Anderson’s work in Madagascar. “While I was at Audubon, I developed the Madagascar Fauna Group with Bill Conway,” he said. “I operated that for 15 years. It’s a collaboration between zoos and universities working in Madagascar to preserve habitat, study lemurs and save them. One of the things we did in San Francisco was link the lemur habitat and visitor experience to our work in Madagascar. We were saying these are species in trouble and we tried to convince the public to become actively involved in preserving them and understand how unique they are.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

One of the biggest controversies during Anderson’s tenure was about the zoo’s elephants. “The elephants were a problematic situation,” he recalled. “My elephant person talked to me and said if we have elephants, they should be [exhibited] in an incredible way. If we were going to do elephants, we needed a very complex three-acre or larger habitat. that would have been very expensive and it became obvious we weren’t going to have the money to do it. We decided to phase them out. The director after me reversed the decision but then they got into problems and eventually decided to phase them out.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

In 2004, the San Francisco Zoo opened African Savanna, home to giraffes, zebras and a variety of African hoofstock and bird. “African Savanna used to be Musk Ox Meadow [before musk ox were phased out,]” Anderson elaborated. “We had giraffes and hoofstock in pretty small spaces so we put together the idea of a mixed species habitat. We would feature giraffes in a way that we had the most experiences possible. There would be giraffe feeding in the barn. We’d show the animals in as many varied viewing spots as possible. You’d get as many interesting viewing experiences as possible and we’d do as much animal enrichment as possible so the animals would be involved in natural behavior. “

@ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

In many ways, the San Francisco Zoo’s location proved a challenge. “The location of the zoo limited it,” Anderson noted. “There’s a highway next to it and lots of slopes. Also, being right by the ocean brought problematic weather conditions and salty air. Any kind of construction in San Francisco is tremendously expensive and it was extra expensive to have to build everything to withstand salt erosion. We even looked at one point at moving the zoo to another location.”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Operating the San Francisco Zoo was very expensive. “The idea of a zoo as a conservation organization is very expensive,” Anderson elaborated. “The conditions that you need to keep animals [the right way] are expensive. That’s the conundrum that goes on in zoos and will result in zoos having fewer species as you need to provide larger habitats.”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

In late 2003, Anderson retired from the San Francisco Zoo having brought significant positive change. He had also served as a leader in the profession and been on the AZA’s Board of Directors. “I’d been at San Francisco for fourteen years and it wore me down,” Anderson reflected. “It was very difficult trying to raise dollars and work with the unions. That’s a tremendous amount of stain on the CEO of an organization. I wanted to get into pure conservation.” He would move on to work for the National Audubon Society.

@ San Francisco Zoo

“The trend for zoos will be to continue to increasingly be involved in more conservation,” Anderson concluded. “To survive, a zoo has to be more overtly connected to [saving species.] It can’t just be an entertainment venue. There have been more efforts to figure out conservation psychology, as you have to link zoos in a stronger way to conservation efforts. Zoos are evolving in their animal welfare practices as they’ve learned more. The problem is still the same: you go to a number of zoos and see a good number of habitats that are unsuitable. Zoos have to find a way to raise the money to build better habitats or replace those species. If you have people who come in and don’t feel comfortable with how animals are kept, you don’t have the ability to influence these people.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

“However, the zoo profession includes increasing numbers of very smart, creative people,” Anderson added. “They are improving the profession every day, and will figure out how to overcome the challenges.”

@ David Anderson

#SanFranciscoZoo #AudubonZoo

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