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.Indeed, I haven't been back since. And something tells me that's unlikely to change anytime soon.
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.