Manuel Mollinedo had an interest in animals when he first started coming to Hawaii years ago. Unlike the creatures in his custody now, those were all underwater.
"I was a part-time instructor at Cal State-L.A., teaching scuba," he said. "My wife and I would come over here and I did quite a bit of scuba diving on the Big Island."
At 64, the Los Angeles-born Mollinedo has made Hawaii — this time, back on shore — his professional business as director of the Honolulu Zoo.
His boss at the city, Enterprise Services Director Sid Quintal, cited Mollinedo’s long experience in parks and as chief of larger zoos in San Francisco and Los Angeles, adding, "We are so fortunate in getting this guy" to supervise the planned improvements in Honolulu Zoo facilities and programs. Quintal hopes a $14 million upgrade to the elephant exhibit will be complete by August; a rehabbed entryway to the zoo, costing about $3 million, should be done in a few weeks.
But first the city had to deal with questions about two notches on Mollinedo’s resume, episodes he fervently wishes had never happened.
A tiger escaped from an exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo and attacked visitors who had hopped the fence, killing one. Less tragically but almost as notoriously at the Los Angeles Zoo, a Komodo monitor (a reptile also known as a Komodo dragon) bit the toe of Phil Bronstein, the San Francisco journalist and then-husband of actress Sharon Stone.
"They had to bring in a specialist because it severed a portion of the tendon, it didn’t sever the whole tendon," Mollinedo explained. "They sewed the tendon back. I mean, I saw him in San Francisco, and he was walking fine."
QUESTION: When was that accident with the tiger?
ANSWER: It was 2 1/2 years ago. It was on Christmas Day, around 5 o’clock. It was actually the darkest day of the year. … The exhibit had been built in 1939. It held tigers for 60 years, no problem. Nobody ever warned me that it was a dangerous exhibit. The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), which is a federal governing agency that governs all zoos, inspected that zoo many, many times.
Q: What was the vulnerability? How did the tiger get out?
A: She was able to leap out of the exhibit. … Now, the city was very concerned about this whole thing because back in the ’80s, I found out, there was a drainage problem and they actually filled in a section of the moat and lifted it by one foot so they could have better drainage. As fate would have it, that was the exact spot where the tiger would leap out. … It was just a coincidence that the tiger would use that area to jump out. And that was because that’s where these people were. They had jumped over the fence, and that’s where they were apparently dangling their legs over the exhibit.
Q: What was the fallout from the tragedy?
A: It was terrible. It was the worst professional situation I had ever been in in my life. It traumatized the staff. I mean, the whole city really took a hit on this. After a while it took a toll on me. Finally I just said, you know what, my health was being impacted, my home life with my wife was being impacted. Finally I said, "It’s not worth it." That’s when I decided to leave.
Q: What was the incident with the Komodo dragon in Los Angeles?
A: We have many stars visit the Los Angeles Zoo; we take them for tours. This one time, we had Phil Bronstein and his wife, Sharon Stone, come and visit the zoo. … Phil Bronstein really fancied himself as quite a reptile expert, and he wanted to take a picture with the Komodo monitor. If you ever knew anything about his history, he’s kind of a cowboy, or used to be when he was reporting. And Sharon Stone convinced my general curator to let Phil Bronstein go into the back of that exhibit so that she could take a picture of him next to the Komodo, in total violation of our protocols. And, you know, she’s a very beautiful woman and this guy’s, you know, a male; she talked him into it. So they go in there, and (Bronstein’s) got white tennis shoes on, and the Komodo bites his tennis shoe. So he kind of laughs it off, and so he comes back outside the exhibit. The reptile keeper looks at the shoe and says, "Oh, the reason is the Komodo eats white mice; we feed the Komodo white mice and so he thought your shoe was a white mouse." So Sharon Stone tells him, "Oh, honey, why don’t you take your shoes off and go in there?" So you’ve got this haole from the mainland that lives in San Francisco who has this pasty white foot — this is just some of my editorializing now — he goes back into the exhibit barefoot; I mean, they should have at least put some rain boots on him. He goes back into the exhibit to get his picture taken, Sharon’s in there trying to take this picture. The Komodo turns around, grabs him by the foot. And he’s trying to scramble, because, you know, it’s very painful. … My keeper, who’s in there with him, is really panicked because he’s worried that the Komodo’s going to get hurt because they’re endangered, and so my keeper finally reaches over and undoes his jaws.
Phil Bronstein did not lose his toe, as was mentioned in the paper, but he was bit by the Komodo. And so he’s bleeding all over the place; he has to go to the hospital. The thing that we’re really concerned about is that Komodos are not venomous but they carry a lot of very virulent bacteria in their mouths , and we were worried that it was going to be infected. So he goes to Cedars-Sinai; we do saliva analysis … We discovered that a Komodo in captivity has fewer virulent bacteria than a Komodo in the wild, because the diet is much better. Turns out the bacteria was very responsive to antibiotics; he recovered.
Q: What was it about working at the zoo that appealed to you?
A: Very candidly: I grew up in East L.A.; my folks were fairly poor. The zoo and a lot of those public facilities did a lot for me as a kid, and really helped me make positive life choices.
When I first went to the zoo, the thing that really impressed me was that when people come to the zoo, they come there because they want a positive experience. I mean, I’d see guys who just got out of prison, with their heads shaved and tattoos, with their girlfriends or their wives pushing a baby stroller. And they’re taking their child to the zoo. It’s a life-changing experience.
Plus I got to be involved with conservation. I met some fascinating people. My background, I’m a physical anthropologist. At one time I was going to be an archaeologist, … so I knew about primates. I had taken some genetics, so I knew about genetics. This background I had picked up in college years ago, all of a sudden I was able to start applying it.
So I really wasn’t the novice that a lot of people thought I was when I first got to the zoo, and I just learned a lot about how it operates, how you manage people, how you have to be very cognizant about your visitors, how you promote your zoo, how you deal with potential donors so you can take potential donations for the zoo. This is a multifaceted type of a position that you’re never bored; it’s always exciting.
Q: What are your goals for the Honolulu Zoo?
A: The thing that’s probably of the most importance to me is that I really see the zoo as more than a menagerie of animals; it’s more than just an amusement facility. To me, the zoo is an educational facility. It’s an outdoor, living classroom. … And what I would like to do is see if I can work with foundations and donors to try to put together a program where we can make sure that every impacted child that’s going to an Oahu school will have access to our zoo. …
We could come up with some sort of funding to get these teachers that work with us to work with their kids, developing these lesson plans and bringing their children to the zoo and really make it a meaningful experience.
I would also really like to come up and develop a plan so that we could really market and promote the zoo to the visitors that come here from the mainland and from other parts of the world.
Q: Can you talk about the planned improvements to the zoo, such as the elephant exhibit?
A: Well, you’ve got these two elephants but they really don’t have much room. … This exhibit, it’s going to be much, much larger, where you can really exercise the animals, you’ve got a better holding area. We’re looking at bringing in a young bull and a female so we can breed elephants. As far as the population of elephants in accredited zoos in the United States, the population you have right now is not sustainable. The elephants are of an age where they’re no longer going to be reproducing like they should be.
Q: How will the financing of the improvements and new programs work?
A: It’s really important to go out and seek corporate donations and philanthropic donations. I’m not that familiar with what you’ve got going in Hawaii. You may not have many corporations — you may not have any corporation headquarters here. But it’s a beautiful island. You’ve got a large number of extremely wealthy people that live on the mainland, that have second homes over here. To me it would seem very logical to speak with these folks when they come here, because many of these people have their own charities and their own organizations that fund charitable programs on the mainland.
Also corporations: You also have a strong influence from the Chinese and the Japanese (corporations) here. They haven’t been known for their philanthropy, but there’s no reason why we can’t try. I feel the zoo has not done enough to reach out to these different sectors to try to get financial support for the zoo.
Q: How would you answer critics who say zoos are an anachronism?
A: In a way I agree with them. I would love to see zoos not exist. But what’s happening on our planet today, human population continues to go up, open space continues to shrink. Animals in the wild: The wild is becoming smaller and smaller as time goes by … If we can’t share with people the plight that these animals are facing in the wild, if you don’t have them there (in the zoo), I don’t think you are going to be able to have as convincing an argument to protect them.
Sure, you can see what’s going on on television, a child can see an elephant on TV, but, again, until you can actually see one of these magnificent creatures in the flesh, right in front of you, it’s not going to have the impact.