1 Zoo Road
10 am to 5 pm daily
(415) 753-7080 (receptionist 8 am - 5 pm Mon-Fri)
1920s, expansion in the 1930s

The first inklings of a San Francisco Zoo began with two guys betting over whether or not grizzly bears still existed in California. They went out to the wild and lured a bear into a cage, then brought it to the city. Alas, grizzly bears still existed. The captured bear, Monarch, served as the model for the bear on the California flag, and lived in San Francisco for 22 years before its death.

The bear incident inspired another guy to actually start a formal zoo. He found a place for it, brought in animals, and commissioned a director who knew what he was doing.

Nowadays, the zoo has more bears. Lots of other animals, too.

San Francisco residents enjoy free admission on the first Wednesday of the month generally - be sure to check their Calendar of Events for details.

Tiger attack

On December 25, 2007, a tiger escaped from her enclosure and killed a 17-year-old visitor. The 243-pound Siberian tiger, which is the largest of its kind, leapt across or climbed out of the tiger grotto's dry moat and killed Carlos Sousa Jr. before seriously injuring two 19- and 23-year-old brothers, and was shot dead by police officers. This was the first case of a visitor being killed by an animal in a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but the same tiger attacked a San Francisco zookeeper in December 2006.

According to a Time article published on Dec. 28, the tiger first attacked Kulbir Dhaliwal, but when Sousa and Kulbir's younger brother Amritpal tried to distract her, she instead lunged for Sousa. The two brothers ran, and the tiger found them 900 feet away at the zoo's Terrace Cafe, supposedly having followed Kulbir's blood trail.

Developing information

As the story developed over the next week through national newspapers — including several days as CNN's top story — several details unfolded.

The first article published by the Chronicle described the moat as 15 feet wide and 20 feet high, but new information in the second article reported a height of 14 feet and a width of 25 to 30 feet. Over the course of the next week, the true dimensions of the moat were in question as several figures were reported to the media, before an eighth article, published on Dec. 27, reported the protective moat's wall at 12 feet, 6 inches high — below natonal zoo standards of 16 feet, 4 inches. The moat's true width, at 33 feet, is acceptable by standards. The enclosure passed an inspection by the AZA in 2004.

On Dec. 29, the Chronicle published another article about Siberian tigers' ability to easily stretch 8 feet, and jump 3 to 4 feet in the air, but postmortem inspection of the tiger, named Tatiana, showed signs of wear to the claws on her hind feet, suggesting that she may have climbed up the wall instead of the previous assumption that she jumped over the dry pit. According to the article, it is not uncommon for Siberian tigers to be kept in enclosures with similar dimensions all over the world, but experts maintain an earlier suspicion that the victim taunted the animal, perhaps by dangling his leg through the fence, inadvertently giving Tatiana something to latch onto.

Hampered police efforts

Police efforts were hampered be several factors, including the lack of floodlights and surveillance cameras, which the zoo maintained are too expensive. Footage would have provided answers to many of the mysteries surrounding the situation, as well as allowed officials to quickly rule out whether other tigers had escaped, which was first thought to be the case. The lack of adequate lighting forced firefighters to provide light from truck ladders parked outside of the zoo. Many other major US zoos also lack floodlights, and most security cameras are aimed at parking lots and areas where money is exchanged, such as box offices and stores. The AZA demands of its accredited zoos to be outfitted with measures meant to protect visitors in the event of such an emergency, but it doesn't provide specific requirements.

The Chronicle's second Dec.29 article covering the events outlined much of the zoo's emergency protocol, and reported that many of the procedures were not conducted in a timely fashion and that zoo visitors were unaware of Tatiana's escape for at least 20 minutes. Zoo employees received an 18-page handbook outlining emergency protocol that was written in 2006. While a special team of zoo employees was charged with the responsibility of downing dangerous animals, it was the police who ultimately shot and killed Tatiana.

Another Dec. 29 article published by the Chronicle priovided a timeline of events outlining the difficulties police encountered while trying to secure the scene. The first call to police was made at 5:07 pm by a cafe employee who heard Amritpaul Dhaliwal screaming outside the Terrace Cafe's locked doors but thought he was just mentally disturbed. The employee's report, which included a weak description of a man who "was bitten by an exotic animal," was treated as a relatively low priority by the police, and officers were not immediately dispatched. When police and fire crews arrived at the park at 5:12 pm, they found the gates locked because of the tiger attack. The crews were finally admitted between 2 and 5 minutes later, and had to "[wait] for the guys with the tranquilizer gun," according to their log of the events. Rescue officials finally reached Sousa at 5:20 — 13 minutes after the first call — and pronounced him dead at the scene. Seven minutes later, Tatiana had begun to attack Dhaliwal, but officers could not shoot without the risk of hitting the victim, so they instead distracted her by shining bright lights onto her. They then shot her with .40 caliber guns over a period of 4 seconds and cleared out to allow medics to occupy the space. At around 5:30, an incorrect report of an additional loose tiger began to surface on police logs, and a zookeeper warned that as many as four may have been unaccounted for, and all crews were ordered to leave the zoo unless they were tending to the victims. It was later determined that only the one tiger had escaped her enclosure.


If the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines that the zoo's exhibit was unsafe and not up to par with standards, it may suspend or revoke the zoo's exhibitor license, or the zoo may be fined.

It is unclear whether Carlos Sousa Jr.'s parents will sue the San Francisco zoo or any of the other agencies involved, but their interviews with media outlets indicate that they will not — at least as far as emergency response is concerned, because his father, Carlo Sousa Sr. believed that his injuries would have been fatal even without the delay.

Several animal-rights organizations are fighting to remove the tiger exhibit from the San Francisco Zoo, citing the attack as proof that the animals are unhappy and not sufficiently cared for. Similar efforts have succeeded in getting the zoo to move all of its elephants to an animal sanctuary because their enclosures were too small. Activisits believe that zoos are designed to profit from animals that are removed from their habitats for the purpose of being stared at, but some the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department maintains that many people wouldn't be exposed to animal preservation efforts if not for the zoo.

On Dec. 27, someone had released two cougars from their cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Manitowoc, Wisconsin by sneaking into the zoo overnight and cutting a hole in their cage. The cougars were returned to their cages after being shot with tranquilizers.

The San Francisco Zoo was closed for what police called a criminal investigation and reopened on Jan. 3, 2008.

On January 11, allegations surfaced in a Chronicle article that a snow leopard and a polar bear had nearly escaped from their cages since the attack that left Carlos Sousa Jr. dead. Zoo employees quoted by the newspaper said they felt unsafe.

Tiger Tales: A Critical Examination of the Tiger's Enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo by two Physicists. Their conclusion: it's very easy for a tiger to leap the distance of the previous enclosure.