Pass this on to your friends at the zoo ...
by Robert Nanninga
ast year in this space I said a few things that upset some supporters of the San Diego Zoo. I criticized the Zoo, while questioning the priorities of the Zoological Society, and for this I am sorry. All it took was a little international perspective for me to acquire an honest respect for the conservation work being done here.
While in Barcelona on spring break, I decided to visit the local zoo. Telling myself that this was research, I took my journal to record my impressions. Let's just say I was not impressed. My entry follows:
Snowflake, an albino Gorilla, is the zoo's animal ambassador. This rare silverback lives in an enclosure with hideous green tiles set in a pattern that sort of resembles an abstract forest. His back is all I see. Continuing the pool motif, the chimpanzees exist on cement pads surrounded by the aforementioned odd colored tiles. The reason for all the extra tile is someone decided not to use it for the pinnipeds.
The Tibetan macaque are mating as I write this. As they finish the female wipes the semen from herself, a small attempt at birth control due to the fact that the pair share a space no larger than a bedroom in a suburban home. Rare and endangered, this couple was a gift from the Chinese government. Tree dwellers in their natural state, these Macaques have no trees.
Also sharing the primate wing are pale headed saki, grey cheeked mangarey, the greater white nosed monkey and the grey mangabey. Within fifty yards you can move back and forth between the hemispheres. The male grey mangabey paces the front of the enclosure while the female nurses an infant in the barren corner. All have had their tails docked. The irony is that according to the hand-held "audio zoo" recording, this species is known for its long tail.
The Siamang have been given burlap sacks. The three on the ground, however, huddle against a wall, reaching for branches that aren't there. In the next enclosure is the world's fastest primate, which can run fifty-five miles per hour. Yet here the patas monkey has no room to achieve a fast walk. It's odd watching a guereza and a brazza's monkey study each other though a wire mesh. I'm a primate watching a primate watch another primate.
QUESTION: Why do humans insist on giving large mammals old tires to play with?
The California sea lions are having to endure a pool of obnoxious blue with basking rocks the color of honey mustard. As a native Southern Californian, I find this interpretation of our coastline rather insulting. However, basking in the sun these animals do resemble residents of Palm Springs. At least the pinniped pool is clean.
Sickened by the polar bear exhibit, I walk away. This is little more than a cesspool. The bears lie panting in the sun. One has a bald spot from rubbing its head against the wall. These arctic bears have been given a blue plastic barrel to play with to alleviate the mind-numbing boredom of their existence. They ignore the barrel. One of the tawny bears is cuddled up with a tire, probably dreaming of snow.
Next to the polar bears, a lone black bear paces at the water's edge. The Audio Zoo informs me that these bears are a problem in North America because they beg from humans. As if on cue, people begin to throw peanuts at the confused ursus americanus.
Across the driveway, a single elephant patiently waits for junk food to be offered by screeching tourists. Reaching gracefully across the moat, this pachyderm consumes all it can get its trunk on. Correct me if I'm wrong, but cotton candy is not part of an elephant's natural diet. In the same enclosure, a young giraffe continuously licks a wire-encased palm tree.
The Madagascar exhibit is a man-made cave that reeks of lemur piss. I hope it's lemur piss, although nothing would surprise me. Whoever designed this primate prison must have been one of the set designers for Gilligan's Island. The only difference is they used live plants for the television classic. The only thing more depressing than seeing brown lemurs in a plastic jungle is being a brown lemur in the plastic jungle. The ring-tailed lemurs, blessed with a charisma that escaped their cousins in the Gilligan's Island piss cave, bask in the sun on a cement island.
QUESTION: Why do humans feel that just because they like living in concrete jungles, other species should as well?
The Barbary sheep have the honor of occupying a crumbling Planet of the Apes set, most of which has been declared unsafe for people. The American bison, have a patch of dry dirt to call home. Trapped in Barcelona yes, Virginia there is a fate worse than extinction. The mouflon wild sheep are fighting over baguettes: more gifts from the primates. Meanwhile, back on the plains of Spain, the Zebras are harassing the Wildebeests and each other.
An old Asian elephant does the pacing thing, while the penguins next door look for a way out of their predicament. Turning back to the zebras, I watch a man pet one of the unpredictable beasts and I can only hope it bites his hand off. Now his whole family is tempting fate. Zebras were not meant to beg for handouts. It's so demeaning, so sad, and so human.
A Coke can and other garbage has been tossed to the merekats along with bread and peanuts. Some considerate primate has donated a zoo map to the enclosure. I'm sure it was so these small mammals would always know their place. In the large terrarium people throw change into the alligator tanks, which is irony wasted on the bored reptiles.
The gayal of Burma is chewing on its metal enclosure after rattling the bars with its formidable horns. As I start to walk away, a man starts grunting at this animal, who just looks at me with the sad wisdom of a sentient being all too familiar with its plight. All I can do is whisper, "I'm sorry," and continue walking. The Ark is sinking in Barcelona.
My visit to Spain taught me a lot about home, and how much I have taken for granted. It is a rough world out there. Saving animals should be about ethics and education, not entertainment. Here in San Diego, the Zoological Society is addressing all three something we should all be proud of.
Robert Nanninga is an independent video producer, actor, vegan and an active member of the Green and environmental communities