Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay VP helps chart
new course at SF Zoo


The San Francisco Zoo marched in the city's Pride Parade for the first time this year. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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The flash of a long, fluffy tail is the first sign of life high above in the tree canopy. Slowly a lemur emerges from the branches and makes it way down to ground level using a rope ladder.

Taking in the sight is David Bocian, vice president of animal care at the San Francisco Zoo. He points out how the exhibit for the endangered primates, whose wild populations on the island of Madagascar are threatened due to deforestation, is designed so that the animals are out in the open.

A former animal keeper with a special focus on primates, Bocian had a hand in creating the outdoor lemur exhibit more than a decade ago. Officially known as the Lipman Family Lemur Forest, it debuted in 2002.

"This is the best lemur exhibit in the world, certainly in the United States," boasts Bocian, 54, a gay man who has spent most of his career working at the San Francisco Zoo. "This exhibit gives you an idea of where we want to go with the zoo. It is designed around their ability."

Nearby is the zoo's African Savannah where a mixture of different species, such as giraffes and zebra, share grassland and intermingle. It is the kind of exhibit the zoo has replicated with various species from Australia and South America.

"These exhibits give the animals a lot of autonomy and freedom in their lives," said Bocian. "Having a mixed species setting that gives them a chance to interact is a positive thing."

David Bocian, vice president of animal care at the San Francisco Zoo, holds a San Francisco garter snake. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Bocian is part of a new management team that is tasked with overhauling the 83-year-old facility and bringing its animal enclosures up to 21st century standards. Many of the current buildings were constructed in 1930s and 1940s under the auspices of the federal depression-era Works Progress Administration.

"I think the San Francisco Zoo has a great opportunity here. A lot of change has happened here in a few years. The place is poised to take off," said Bocian, who graduated from Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland in 1980 and earned an MA in ecology and systematics from San Francisco State University in 1999.

After a short stint working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and other facilities around New York City, in January 2011 Bocian returned to the San Francisco zoological park, where he has been employed for more than two decades.

"I particularly enjoy his long tenure and experience as a zookeeper," said SF Zoo Executive Director Tanya Peterson.

Bocian's duties include overseeing the wellness of the zoo's animal collection, which numbers 800 individuals representing more than 200 species. He also is tasked with the training and safety of the staff and assists in managing the experience of visitors to the zoo.


Major renovation

The zoo is embarking on a major renovation of its South American section in 2013 and plans to add a North American region in the coming years. Bocian and his team of animal keepers and curators are already determining the new species of animals they want to feature in the planned expansion.

Wolves, moose and caribou are among the likely possibilities, he said, as they are species whose natural habitats and survival are being threatened by climate changes and development pressures.

"Moose, you don't get to see them a lot. They have a dramatic story and a bit of a conservation issue there," said Bocian. "People come to zoos and want to see African species. But we have a lot of conservation and species from North America with stories to tell."

First up will be the construction of a new squirrel monkey exhibit adjacent to the South American Tropical Forest building, which now houses an anaconda and several bird species. The interior of the building is also set for an overall, with plans calling for new exhibits featuring piranha and a sloth, with additional South American flying birds such as parrots and macaws.

Also set to begin in 2013 is a revamp of the children's playground at the zoo. The project calls for separate areas for various ages that are modeled after distinct habitats, such as a polar ice zone and river stream.

The upgrades are slated to cost $10 million and the zoo has raised 75 percent of the funds from private sources. The first phase should open next summer.

"My goal is to make this one of the best zoos in the U.S. in both animal care as well as support and connection with the visitors," said Peterson. "Having said that, it is difficult when we are working with limited resources. We are taking baby steps."

She added that her goal is to "improve this zoo acre by acre."

The zoo has been slowly emerging out of the dark shadows cast by a fatal tiger mauling that occurred on Christmas Day in 2007. The incident generated international headlines and brought to light that the zoo's lion and tiger habitats did not meet industry standards.

Since then attendance has slowly built back up, with the zoo surpassing its goal of 800,000 visitors during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Its budget is $17 million, $4 million comes from the city with the bulk coming from visitor spending and sales of zoo memberships.

Detractors of the zoo continue to denounce its management focus and the proposed plans. They contend the priority should be on renovating the current exhibits rather than tackling new habitats or amenities for the human guests.

"So, new animals and humans, get bright, shiny, new and modern areas, while current animals continue to live status quo. I personally can not imagine being someone of authority in the Zoological Society and being able to sleep at night knowing I was forging ahead with plans that did not include helping the animals that already live there, before anything else," wrote a female blogger who goes by the name leo811 at the site

Bocian defended the proposed projects, noting that the zoo relies on paying customers for a large bulk of its budget.

"We have a lot of families who come here. They are our bread and butter," he said. "A lot of parents are looking for a great playground to bring their kids to. We will have one that is very unique and animal themed."

The zoo has also been reaching out to the city's LGBT community and young adults without kids this summer in an effort to attract a new demographic of visitors.

This year marked the first time that the SF zoo marched in the Pride Parade.

"It was fun. We wanted to show we are a part of the vibrant diversity of San Francisco," said Danny Latham Jr., a gay man who is the zoo's marketing manager. "It positions ourselves as part of the fabric of the city."

The zoo has a ways to go to attract more LGBT visitors. The group Gays for Good held one of its volunteer workdays at the zoo in August and the majority of the 40 people in attendance had never been there.

Steve Carp, a director for the group's San Francisco chapter, said he wasn't that surprised by the large number of first-time zoo visitors. It doesn't have the same cachet as the San Diego Zoo, said Carp, and has to compete for people's attention with many other attractions in the Bay Area.

LGBT people "don't think of the zoo," said Carp. "I think now it has made me think of the zoo more. With or without the group, I will go back and go back fairly soon to be able to walk around and enjoy the place."

Last month the zoo held an after dark event targeted at young adults that featured a silent disco. One of the DJs who performed was Tom Temprano, a gay party promoter who had only been to the zoo once before in the eight years he has lived in San Francisco.

"I enjoyed it. It seemed like some of the facilities are a little bit antiquated, which adds to the charm but didn t seem like the most modern of zooing experiences," said Temprano.

He suspected that many of the people who came out for the dance party likely were new zoo visitors.

"People were really exited about the opportunity to go to the zoo. I feel like a lot of San Francisco residents never have been there," he said. "The feedback I heard was it was the first thing that made them want to go to the zoo the entire time they lived here."

The nighttime event came out of a strategy session looking at ways the zoo could connect with new audiences, said Latham. It drew more than 650 people and likely will be held again.

"The biggest misperceptions is that it is just for kids and it is not," said Latham of the zoo.

Overall Bocian believes the zoo is making positive changes for both its animals and its guests.

"This really is a good place to come visit," he said. "We have some real gems."

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