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Intermission – San Francisco Zoo

October 6, 2010

Dateline: San Francisco Zoo, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

I’m supposed to hate zoos—the liberal media tells me so. Zoos are a depressing place where humans cage other animals for fun and profit. The beasts should be free to roam the savannah, climb the jungle canopy, and march the ice fields of the Antarctic. Those who participate in the incarceration of creatures are perpetuating an abomination against Mother Nature. Visiting a zoo just means you’re feeding the prison machine.

All of this makes it a bit strange that today I’m willfully going to the San Francisco Zoo. Shoved to the western edge of the city, on the verge of being washed into the Pacific Ocean, the SF Zoo is located in a quiet, foggy neighborhood full of immigrants, students, and other miscreants.

I’m here because of Tippy. If you know anything about Tippy, it’s probably that she loves animals. She’s caretaker to a snake and a turtle she rescued (from her mom). Best of all, she writes the popular blog Backyard Zoologist, a site devoted to the more interesting parts of the animal kingdom (to Tippy, that means everything). Suffice it to say, I trust Tippy wouldn’t take me to an animal gulag.

We make our way through the employee entrance and head straight for the Animal Resource Center, home to various reptiles, birds, and rodents. Tippy ushers me from animal to animal, allowing me to hold and touch owls, possums, porcupines, and an alligator. All the while, volunteers and staff scurry around us. Some put lizards on leashes for their daily walks, use spray bottles to mist the birds of prey, and clean out cages, prepare meals, and feed the animals. These didn’t look like prison guards; more like anxious moms and dads (only less oppressive).

At one point I found myself standing on the “Employees Only” side of floor-to-ceiling glass windows in a room filled with reptiles and amphibians. I’d just finished petting the belly of Lafayette, a baby alligator, and was watching him sleep on top of two turtles when I noticed a 4-year-old outside hopping up and down, pointing between me and the animals. I slipped him a grin and thought, “It’s good to be a grownup.” Thirty years too late, but I’ve achieved popularity with preschoolers.

We finished our visit to the ARC by visiting a couple of owls and Maya, a blue fronted Amazon and a music aficionado (loves singing to U2’s Discotheque; hates Prince). She was kind enough to treat us with a little karaoke, accompanied by Tippy’s iPhone.

From there we visited the primates, including one of the zoo’s stars, Hasani, a one-and-a-half-year-old gorilla.

Since I’m a cat person, I insisted on visiting the big cats: the lions, the tigers, and a snow leopard. It was almost dusk; lion feeding time. Tippy tried to get me behind the scenes to see the carnage, but she couldn’t find her caretaker friend. I did have the pleasure of hearing them roar. It reminded me that I’m more animal than I realize because, as I stood there listening to the lions rumble, I involuntarily shivered. Behind the deep moat and a wall of Plexiglas, I felt no fear of being eaten and instead experienced the thrill of staring death in the face and whispering, “Cool”—the jungle equivalent of screaming in delight on a roller coaster because you believe the straps will hold.

And it is cool. The San Francisco’s Zoo is cool. It’s clear that everyone here loves animals. They’ve gone to school because they wanted to be around animals; to take care of them; to share their passion for the animal kingdom with the world. They want everyone to care about animals enough to preserve the habitats in which they live. They want people to stop killing them for their tusks, hair, or testicles.

Let’s face it, properly cared for zoo animals probably have a pretty good life. No fear of predators. No going hungry. No trekking hundreds of miles in search of water. Just chillin’ with your friends, ordering room service, and having a decent amount of sex. How many Americans wouldn’t trade places with these guys, given a big TV and an Internet connection?

I know, I know, I know: “Animals are supposed to be running through fields, frolicking in open spaces, living out their destiny.”

I say, “Baloney.” Romanticizing jungle life seems too close to romanticizing the lives of poor people because they live closer to the earth, eke out a living from the land, go bed cold and hungry, fearing predation from wild animals and ambitious humans. I’m pretty sure most people living the jungle life wouldn’t mind trading up to a cage condo in Manhattan. And, if not them, their kids would adapt and would be in no rush to go back to nature.

Sure, zoos can be perpetrators of wrong, but so can religions, corporations, and Lindsay Lohan. The hope is that each ends up guided by people who have everyone’s best interests in mind.

In the case of the SF Zoo, many of the animals at the zoo are rescues or children of rescues. Many have suffered injuries in the wild and wouldn’t be alive without the zoo. Some animals will be released into the wild when they’re ready. Lafayette, for example, will be released into the wild when he’s about three years old (or about 4 years before he reaches his full length of 13 feet).

I’m not saying we should cage all animals. I’m saying that it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be. That’s especially true when zoo animals bring people closer to nature, give them the travel bug, and motivate them to do something to protect our planet. Pictures and film are great, but hearing the roar of a lion, staring a bird of prey in the eye, and hearing the hooves of a pacing rhinoceros are so much more. If these lounging animals can help save their brothers and sisters in the wild, who’s to say they’re not doing God’s work.

Don’t believe me? Go to your local zoo and check it out.

GALLERY: Click through to see more animals like a giraffe, Lafayette sleeping on two turtles, Francious Petr the chinchilia and Bora the African hedgehog.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2010 10:54 am

    We LOVE Fleishhacker Zoo (that’s the old name) and belonged every year we lived at PUC. Took the kids down often – it improved immensely over the years since I lived in S.F. in the early ’50s and went with my folks.

    The only animals that really suffer much are those that are “travelers” in the wild — mountain lions, for example — these are the ones that you see constantly pacing. African lions in the wild sleep 23 hours/day when they’ve been fed, so they LOVE the zoo!!

    If you belong to the society, you get invited to special events, “behind the scenes” visits, etc. Plus “free” admission, of course… 🙂

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