Cinnamon Stillwell

I’m the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that focuses on Middle East studies. I was a political columnist for SFGate.com (San Francisco Chronicle online) from 2004-2008. I've written for the American Thinker, Frontpage Magazine, Family Security Matters, Accuracy In Media, Newsbusters, Israel National News, The Jewish Policy Center, J-The Jewish News Weekly of N. CA, Intellectual Conservative and many others. More info at CinnamonStillwell.com.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Of Tigers, Zoos, and Captivity

The unfortunate Christmas Day incident involving a fatal mauling, two other attacks, and one dead tiger has drawn attention to the state of affairs at the San Francisco Zoo. And it's not the first time. Tatiana, the Siberian tiger in question, attacked a zoo keeper earlier this year during a public feeding. Then there were the two elephants that were moved to an animal sanctuary in 2004 because of poor conditions and the resulting deaths of two previous elephants.

While the investigation into the current episode is still unfolding and speculation abounds, one thing is certain, wild cats in zoos are a dubious proposition. Even in the best environment (and the SF Zoo has made considerable progress in that regard since the old days of big cats pacing back and forth in small cages) one has to wonder if these magnificent creatures are well-served in captivity. The need to preserve their dwindling numbers, along with those of other species, is obvious, but are zoos the best means of doing so?

Certainly, some zoos are better than others and elaborately constructed approximations of natural habitats are the trend these days. Nonetheless, the prying eyes and often obnoxious behavior of onlookers makes the entire experience feel, well, unnatural.

One might even question, as does columnist and "To the Contrary" host Bonnie Erbe, whether zoos should continue to exist. In a recent column, Erbe suggests shifting the experience to a virtual one and in this day and age, that could very well suffice. I've always thought a move towards housing animals in wildlife refuges or zoos that best imitate that environment, combined with concealed walkways for visitors and the encouragement of discrete behavior, is the way to go.

In the meantime, we seem to be stuck with the rather antiquated zoos of yesteryear and the creatures that are doomed to exist therein. While I'm sure there are many well-meaning zoo employees who genuinely care for the animals in their custody, and just as many well-meaning visitors and donors, it seems like we could do better.

In the case of the SF Zoo, this is doubly true. I've been a long time critic of the zoo in general, but particularly its shoddy and, in some cases, inhumane animal enclosures. Here's what I had to say about the SF Zoo in a 2005 SFGate column titled, "A Tourist In My Own Backyard":
...Unfortunately, I cannot give such glowing reviews to a Sunset District attraction, the San Francisco Zoo. I should admit up front that I've never been much of a zoo person. I always end up feeling sorry for the animals and leaving thoroughly depressed. My childhood visits to the S.F. Zoo only strengthened such feelings. The old-fashioned cement enclosures and forbidding weather left me with unpleasant memories.

I even agreed with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last year when it passed a resolution calling for the zoo's elephants to be relocated to an animal sanctuary. But I put aside my squeamishness for the sake of visiting relatives, and to the zoo we went.

It was of course one of those foggy days Ocean Beach is famous for, and the animals in the African Savanna habitat did not look pleased. This is one among several new and improved habitats for some of the animals, but many of the others remain in small, outmoded enclosures and looked downright miserable. The worst are the polar bears, who paced back and forth in front of the ogling viewers like patients in a mental hospital. Tropical birds are housed in small to medium cages rather than the open enclosures best suited to winged creatures, while two giant hippos share a tiny waterway. A lone gray seal remained submerged at the bottom of a bath-tub-like pool, no doubt trying to avoid the prying eyes only inches away. To keep a marine mammal in such conditions in a city where sea lions roam freely at Pier 39 just seems wrong somehow.

The poor conditions for some of the animals were compounded by a constant wall of sound. Despite the presence of signs urging visitors to keep quiet, small motorized passenger trains chugged loudly throughout the zoo all day, going back and forth right next to the enclosures. Then there were the groups of children who ran around screaming at the tops of their lungs and yelling at the animals. They appeared to be unhindered by adult supervision, most of which consisted of parents and teachers acting exactly the same way. Call me old fashioned, but I seem to recall a time where adults urged children to be quiet and respect the animals while visiting the zoo. Kids will be kids, but it's their lot to learn to adjust to the world around them, not the other way around.

On top of all this, the entrance fees aren't cheap, and services that used to be free (talking information boxes at each enclosure) now require a paid key to operate. The information plaques provide little more than apocalyptic scenarios of fading habitats and encroaching hunters, which, while probably true, do little to imbue visitors with a sense of hope for conserving wildlife.

Making one's way around the zoo isn't easy, either. The layout is difficult to navigate and we found ourselves walking in circles most of the time. Many of the pathways meander off into areas unaccompanied by signs, while plants cover other signs. A number of enclosures consist simply of empty lots filled with weeds. In the end, we left without seeing the entire zoo, and we were only too happy to depart. My relatives were hardly thrilled with the experience, and it was one I certainly don't plan on reliving.
Indeed, I haven't been back since. And something tells me that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have always found the SF Zoo very depressing. Not only for its miserable climatic conditions (almost always foggy and windy), and not only because the enclosures seems sterile, grey and depressing, but because it's so distantly located and hard to reach for anyone in Bay Area who doesn't have a car.

As for the tiger attack, two observations:

Firstly, the real problem is not with the SF Zoo, but with the Denver Zoo (yes, I said Denver Zoo). What am I talking about? The only other fatal attack by a big cat in a US zoo this year was in February when a jaguar killed a zookeeper at the Denver Zoo. Tatiana tore off half the arm of an SF zookeeper last Christmas, and afer spending some time in "solitary confinement," this Christmas after being displayed to the public once more she attacked again at the first opportunity. What's the connection? Shortly before the original attack last year, Tatiana was loaned to SF from...you guessed it, the Denver Zoo. I propose that something is terribly awry with the way that the Denver Zoo is treating its big cats, and they are unintentionally creating hostile maneaters.

Secondly, what no one is pointing out is this:

I've been analyzing the photos of the enclosure, and my theory is that the tiger did NOT "go over the wall."

Look at this aerial photo of the tiger enclosure: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?o=3&f=/c/a/2007/12/28/MNSKU5OFE.DTL . I think there is a terrible, terrbile flaw in the security design, and it has nothing to do with the moat or the height of the wall in front.

The flaw is the foilage at the BACK of the enclosure -- ivy or some other kind of vine that covers the wall. Any tiger could use that foliage as a sort of rope ladder to scale the BACK wall and get to the top of the divider, and then walk or run along the TOP of the dividing wall and jump down into the public area.

See what I mean?

-- zombie

Friday, December 28, 2007 3:22:00 PM  
Blogger Lutheran Lucciola said...

I agree with your feelings about the SF zoo, and most zoos in general. The SF one depressed me years ago, and I never went back.

Friday, December 28, 2007 7:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Josh said...

I'm totally with you, Cinnamon. The SF Zoo needs to be cleaned up like the rest of the city. Perhaps we can start housing some of the homeless there. And once again, our esteemed mayor, was out of town when this happened. I guess it's business as usual since he won re-election.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008 8:33:00 PM  

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