"Z" is for Zoo

Our resident eco-radical takes a trip to the zoo, and sees things a little differently.

by Robert Nanninga

was at the World Famous San Diego Zoo not long ago, and I have to admit that place really trips me out. I visited the zoo with a friend from out of state and her mother, brother and niece. Watching her brother relate to his four-year-old daughter was like a scene out of National Geographic. I think zoos should have a space for homo sapiens.

As soon as we arrived, we made a beeline to the Children's' Zoo, which I found tawdry at best. The exhibits were tired and seemed neglected. The petting corral had domestic sheep and goats in what appeared to be crowded conditions. The kids might have been enjoying themselves but the livestock appeared to have better things to do.

It was here among all these families that I started to recognize a sinister plot. Now, I know most people are aware of Disney's plan for world domination. I just wasn't prepared for yet another ugly truth. Picture this scenario: little Johnny is running around completely unfocused and mom, wanting him to calm down, knew exactly how to do it. "Look Johnny," she says, "it's Timon from the Lion King." Bingo, it worked every time.

Meerkats are not the exception. Any animal that even vaguely resembled a pig became Puumba. It did not matter if it was a wild boar or a Vietnamese pot bellied pig. What did matter was that the parents and children could find common ground in their Disney vocabulary.

I know some of you are saying, " Chill out Bob," and you're right. But what really bothers me is that if all animals are seen through the eyes of Disney, wildlife becomes little more than a cartoon. Children's Zoo's should be a place of education, not misrepresentation.

Let's see what else bothered me. The incubator where you get to see baby chickens - very cute. However, I was aware that those adorable chicks were soon to be snake food. The baby gorilla in diapers triggered a depression that would not leave me until I left the zoo. And before I get hundreds of letter explaining why the gorilla was wearing Pampers, once again let me say - I know. Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking for me to see this young primate completely alone in a cage, totally removed from it's natural social structure.

After the Children's Zoo we hopped on the Skyfari and headed towards the Polar Bear Plunge. This million dollar exhibit is very impressive. It is a shame that Castor, who had been with the Zoological Society for nearly three decades, didn't survive long enough to enjoy it. A letter I received recently from the President of the Zoological Society was intent on assuring me that it wasn't their fault that the old bear died and that the Zoological Society is committed to providing outstanding facilities for their animals. It also told me to look forward to the arrival of two polar bear cubs.

Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't polar bears suppose to be solitary animals? The aforementioned letter also stated that Zoological Society scientists are leaders in their various disciplines. If this is true, why are these scientists committed to overcrowded living conditions? It seems to me that the Society's logic is self-serving at best.

After the Polar Bear Plunge we went over to Hippo Beach. I must admit the Hippos appeared to be very happy, which isn't surprising since hippos don't require much in the way of creature comforts. Food, water and mud just about covers it. Unlike polar bears, hippos don't have a wanderlust and are content to stay in one place, conditions permitting.

Primate Mesa is comprised of the wonderful Gorilla Tropics exhibit, which is a state of the art enclosure, as are the orangutan and bonobo chimp facilities. However, not far from these liberal spaces other primates are still forced to endure brick and wire cells that make no effort to simulate natural living conditions. If this is the best the world has to offer, we are all in trouble.

I must admit I much prefer the Wild Animal Park. This modern day ark is actually rescuing species from the brink of extinction - a noble calling if ever there was one. This park provides animals with enough room to actually break into a run and establish breeding hierarchies. To be honest, I am a voyeur at heart and seeing two endangered white rhinos making more white rhinos was a priceless treat. If rhinos could understand politics and performance art, this would be a combination of the two.

As a member of the Zoological Society, I am very aware of the success they have had. I firmly believe they are doing the work of the Goddess. It is where they are doing the work that disturbs me. Instead of spending millions of dollars on a polar bear enclosure in San Diego, that money could be spent on purchasing habitat in the arctic.

Underneath this conversation is the specter of human overpopulation and greed. Tribal warfare in Central Africa is threatening to undo all the work of Diane Fossey. Jane Goodall has been hitting the lecture circuit trying to change behaviors. But it seems that education isn't enough. Saving the animals for their own sake has not played very well around the world. The new approach being taken by the conservation community is showing people how they will benefit from keeping other species around. By convincing villagers that Gorillas translate into tourist dollars, protecting species becomes a monetary issue. Too many people consuming shrinking resources is a recipe for disaster.

Some people would say the only way to save these animals is to put them on display as a teaching tool. In answer to that, I would reply that the planned polar bear exhibit at Sea World is aimed more at selling beer than at species preservation. The tragedy of truth is a hard pill to swallow. I know that organizations such as the San Diego Zoological Society are a necessary evil, but these well-meaning folks are a bucket brigade on the Titanic.

If you ask me, polar bears in San Diego is a crime against nature. As concerned citizens of planet earth, we must do more to protect the wild spaces that are rapidly disappearing. Shipping animals halfway around the world is little more than a band-aid designed ease the pain of guilt. So here is a fond farewell to Castor; it's a shame we learned very little from your time with us.

Robert Nanninga can now be heard as the co-host of Earth Talk on KCEO AM1000 every Wednesday between 7 and 8pm. Call in and be heard.