City considers privatizing LA Zoo

A pair of rare snow leopard cubs play at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
A pair of rare snow leopard cubs play at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. David McNew/Getty Images

The City Council is expected to vote today on whether to ask private companies and nonprofit groups to submit applications to manage the Los Angeles Zoo, an idea described by its chief advocate as "the only model" available to the cash-strapped city if it wishes to retain the facility.

The council is also expected to vote on a request by an animal rescue group to run a Northeast San Fernando Valley shelter that has been all but shuddered since 2008.

The two alternative management plans are necessary because "the city continues to face fiscal challenges," said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who wrote the proposals.

Because salary, pension and health care costs are rising while the zoo's budget has remained flat, the zoo has been forced to cut its staff from about 270 employees in 2008 to 228 today.

"Any further reductions means it will be harder for the zoo to stay open," Santana said. "We'll have less programs, and we'll need to further increase the fees to get in. That's the opposite direction we want to go."

Under a so-called alternative management structure, the city would retain ownership of the zoo, and none of the zoo's 228 full-time workers would be laid off.

Employees who do zoo-specific work would keep their current jobs. However, plumbers, carpenters, gardeners and other non-zoo specific employees could be transferred into other city departments.

All new hires at the zoo would work for the new private manager.

The zoo, where admission is $9 for children under 13 years old, has long been an affordable alternative to other area attractions, such as Disneyland, which costs $74 for children ages 3-9 and increases in price from there.

"If we want to have a zoo, if a zoo is important for Angelenos, then this is really the only model available to us," Santana said.

Addressing concerns that ticket prices at the zoo would spike under a private manager, Santana said the city council would have to approve any changes to ticket prices.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed that the city investigate privatizing the zoo's management more than two years ago.

"The mayor has asked us to look at this, so we're fulfilling that request," said Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the zoo.

LaBonge said donors are less likely to support a city-managed zoo because too much of their money goes toward administrative costs and not enough to zoo improvements and programs.

Zoo employees say they fear ticket prices would increase, and the animals would suffer under a private manager. They say zoo employees are dedicated to their positions and new hires would lack institutional knowledge about how to care for the grounds and its tenants.

Council members will also consider today whether to approve a three-year contract with the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society to operate a city-owned animal shelter in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.

The city opened the new building in 2008 to shelter animals that were evidence in criminal cases or owned by imprisoned individuals. However, the city has not been able to afford to staff the shelter. Officials estimate it would cost the city about $3.3 million per year for the Department of Animal Services to operate.

"I think Best Friends is a wonderful opportunity for a number of reasons," Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette said. "They have a national presence and a proven track record of doing high volume adoptions and high volume spay and neuter."

Best Friends has been operating in Los Angeles for about 20 years and the organization has a good donor base here, she added.

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