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The Alphabet Series 2000: Z is for Zoos

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
November 29, 2000


"In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy." — John C. Sawhill

And so we come to the end of yet another Alphabet Series. In keeping with tradition I have again ventured into the zoological for inspiration. What I found instead was resolve masquerading as hope. In a gesture of full disclosure, I should admit caged animals have always depressed me. Go figure.

Zoos represent many things for many people, some see them as entertainment or education, cruel or compassionate. In my particular case they serve as mirrors. No matter how well intended, Zoos seem to me like warehouses with snack bars. As 21st century arks, it's difficult to divorce myself from the reality that most of the animals being gawked at have no where to go if they were released.

Here in San Diego we should consider ourselves lucky. Ours is the distinct honor of living near the best two zoological facilities in the world. As pessimistic as I may be, I still recognize the incredible work being done by the professionals at the Zoological Society of San Diego.  Hope on the part of dedicated biologists is the only thing standing between hundreds of species and extinction.

At the forefront of the Zoological Society's efforts to sustain biological diversity is the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. CRES, the largest research program of its kind in the world is dedicated to preserving and protecting rare and endangered wildlife by maintaining their frozen genetic resources. And you thought the Wild Animal Park was cutting edge.

Speaking of the WAP, last week a friend and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon strolling the gardens of the Wild Animal Park. The reason behind my visit was to check out the new exhibit Condor Ridge for this column. Tucked between the Conifer Forest and the Baha garden, Condor Ridge overlooks the lion enclosure, and the African Plains section of the park. Hyperdiversity at it's best. The view was beautiful, but I couldn't help feel concern for the desert bighorn sheep living within ear range of the big cats.

As far as animal enclosures go, Condor Ridge is nice. Earth tones and cool graphics, but no matter how clean the cage it is still a cage. Watching endangered Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in a glorified Habitrail was a little disheartening. The zoological society maybe doing a good job with a depressing task, but no amount of gift shops will hide the fact most species we see in captivity are no longer viable in the wild.

With America's population set to double in the next 100 years where exactly are Condors to find food? As strict scavengers, they require large tracts of open space, and plenty of carrion.  Considering California has the highest rate of population growth, it is unlikely there will be any room left for condors in the Golden State other than their deluxe accommodations in San Pasqual.

I know I shouldn't be such a bummer. But an individual can see only so many endangered species before he starts to feel a bit endangered himself. No where in the literature provided by the Wild Animal Park does it spell out exactly why all these animals are "endangered." Oh sure we did get a pamphlet printed on recycled paper attempting to speak for the great condor spirit of the Kumeyaay tradition. But no real knowledge about the true fate of the California Condor.

Struggling to write this column, I realize my problem is not with zoos but the lack of honesty in which they are presented. Children are not presented with the facts, what they get is a sanitized entertainment experience that does nothing to make zoos unnecessary. The ark is sinking and those of us in San Diego will be the last to notice because of state of the art exhibits, and a great deal of apathy.

What I would like to see is biological clocks counting down for all the species we so casually label "endangered." At this writing, and to the best of my knowledge, there are 166 California condors left on the planet. Perhaps this bit of sobering news might not save these majestic birds from extinction, but in the long run such inventory taking might save us from the same fate.

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