The first thing you notice when you walk into Honolulu Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo’s office is that there is no air conditioning.
Mollinedo, who beat out seven other applicants for the post, and his staff are turning it off on certain days to keep costs down.
The new director oversees an operating budget of about $4.67 million, and like other city agencies, the zoo has been forced to tighten spending.
Before taking the Honolulu post in December, Mollinedo was director of the San Francisco Zoo from 2004 to 2008. During his tenure a tiger got loose on Christmas Day 2007, fatally mauling 17-year-old zoo visitor Carlos Sousa Jr. In the wake of the attack, Mollinedo resigned.
Where: 151 Kapahulu Ave., Waikiki
Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except Christmas Day)
Size: 42 acres
No. of visitors: 600,000 a year
No. of employees: About 160
Animal collection: More than 1,000 representing 220 species
Newest residents: Lions Ekundu and Moxy
Budget: $6 million FY2011
Admission fees: $12; Hawaii residents, $6; kids ages 4-12, $3; kids 3 years and under, free
Info: 808-971-7171, www.honoluluzoo.org
Source: Honolulu Zoo
Mollinedo says the first thing he did since taking the helm at the Honolulu Zoo was to check on the safety of the big-animal exhibits and clean up the zoo’s back area to prepare it for a visit by an accreditation team from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. And two weeks into the job, the zoo also got a visit from President Barack Obama and his family.
Two major projects already in the works before Mollinedo’s arrival include a new $3 million entrance that was unveiled in February. A new elephant exhibit is also being built at a cost of $11.5 million, with a targeted October completion date.
Mollinedo says he sees enormous potential for Honolulu Zoo. His ideas include improving the view of the bird exhibits, bringing in animals from Australia and building a restaurant to draw in more visitors. He is also working on bringing the zoo’s web systems up to speed.
Mollinedo recently sat down with the Star-Advertiser for a conversation.
Question: Did it surprise you that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums did not renew your accreditation this year despite all of the capital improvements?
Answer: I was disappointed. I think the staff worked very hard. We all tried to pull together, but unfortunately, there were just a number of issues that still remain to be completed. We’re moving ahead with them, with the graphic issue, construction of the elephant exhibit, and in getting everything ready so when the new inspection team comes out to visit the zoo (in another nine months), hopefully we can convince them we’ve made enough progress to receive accreditation for the next five years.
My feelings at this point are that they saw progress being made here, and they just want to be confident this progress is really continuing.
MANUEL A. MOLLINEDO
Honolulu Zoo director
Salary: $104,000 a year
Experience: Executive director, San Francisco Zoo, 2004-2008; general manager, Recreation and Parks Department, 2002-2004, Los Angeles; zoo director, Los Angeles Zoo, 1995-2002
Education: Master’s in public adminstration, University of Southern California; master’s in science, recreation administration, California State University at Los Angeles
Other: Trustee, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International; bilingual in English and Spanish
Q. What brought you to the Honolulu Zoo?
A. The lovely environment. I mean, you can’t beat it. There’s tremendous potential here. From a visitorship standpoint everybody has talked about the large number of tourists that visit Honolulu, but the zoo has never been able to tap into that resource. I would say we’re one of the major attractions on Oahu, and yet we’re probably the most understated attraction. … We’ve got a great location here. You walk out on Waikiki in the evening and you have thousands of tourists walking down the street looking for something to do. We need to find a way to attract these people and bring them to our zoo and create programs that are going to interest them. The model I would like to emulate in the future is what the Singapore Zoo has done (with its Night Safari nocturnal zoo).
Q.What challenges are facing the Honolulu Zoo?
A. We have a rather geriatric collection. We need to work more closely with the SSP (Species Survival Plan) program to make sure that we’re able to breed endangered species. … The best example would be the Sumatran tiger program we’re involved with right now. We participated in an SSP there to help save and increase the population of Sumatran tigers, which are very endangered. … We need to involve ourselves with more programs like that.
Q.Is it essential for a zoo to have a healthy breeding program? Does it have to do with the exhibits or the budget?
A.Having young, robust animals that have babies does act as an attraction for the general public, but also you’re participating in a conservation program. Many times not only are you breeding the animals and increasing that particular endangered population, but participating financially in helping to preserve the natural habitats for these animals.
Q. So the role of a zoo today is conservation as well as entertainment?
A.You’re absolutely right. At one time, zoos were looked upon just as entertainment value. Entertainment is valid, it’s important but to me, (but) conservation and education are really the most important missions for a zoo. What I see a zoo being is a living, outdoor classroom, and for that reason I really want to see us work more closely with the schools. So instead of children coming here as part of a field trip, with solely a recreational purpose, I would like to see us work with the instructors to develop science-based lessons plans for the kids.
Q. The animal-rights group In Defense of Animals has alleged the elephants here didn’t have adequate space and weren’t being treated well. Will that be addressed by the new enclosure?
A.We have a group of very dedicated keepers who take care of the elephants. … They are extremely passionate about those animals. I don’t think there’s any other zoo in the U.S. that provides better care for their elephants than we do. The criticism that In Defense of Animals mentioned about our zoo is that the elephant exhibit is small, and I have to agree it is a small exhibit. The new exhibit’s going to be 1.4 acres, so it’s going to much larger. It’s going to have two 55,000-gallon water pools for the elephants to bathe in.
Q.Do you have budget concerns for this fiscal year?
A. Working in government, you always have budget concerns. I have to say the city has been very generous to the zoo these last few years. We have the new entrance, we have the new elephant exhibit. We’re actually doing design work for a new hippo filtration system. … I know we’re going to have budgetary challenges this fiscal year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed in hopes that the mayor and City Council look favorably upon the zoo like they have in years past. … Next year the budget is going to be my total responsibility. You can rest assured next year we’re not going to find ourselves in a situation where we can’t turn the air conditioning up.
Q.Looking back at the tiger incident at the San Francisco Zoo, is there anything you would have done differently?
A. You know, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. That tiger exhibit held tigers for over 40 years. That federal report came out and substantiated what I had said, that something motivated that tiger to come out of that exhibit. What it is I’ll probably never know, but it seems that poor animal was agitated. Things were found in that exhibit that normally weren’t there.
Q. Is there anything that could have been done to prevent it?
A.No, not really. The (U.S. Department of Agriculture) … never found the exhibit to be substandard. The AZA accredited the zoo. They never found the exhibit to be substandard. So it was there, and there were many zoos that had exhibits that were that height and probably lower. … What did I take from that experience? One of the first things I did when I came over here was look at the height of our fencing and the exhibits we have here. They appear high enough, but you never know what’s going to motivate an animal to want to get out.
Q.You’re confident it won’t happen here.
A. I feel comfortable. I don’t think a zoo director can ever feel totally confident. We can only do the best job we can and always be very sensitive to safety and try to be conscious of that as much as we possibly can.
Q. What’s your vision for the zoo in the next five years?
A. One of the things that to me would be very important is to really expand and make the animal collection more robust. I would like to see us bring in more Australian animals, like koalas and tree kangaroos. I think they would do very well here. … The other thing I would like to do … is identify public schools of need, work with their teachers, develop a curriculum they can take to their classrooms … and have them come to the zoo as an extension of the school day.