Monday, August 28, 2006

The New Zoo Review

I’ve been to a lot of zoos in my life, including the famous San Diego Zoo and the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and I truly believe that the San Francisco Zoo is right up there with the best. Back in the late 80’s when I first visited it, I couldn’t honestly say that. It was antiquated, with those old animal warehouse-type buildings and all of the animals were inside these rather uncomfortable-looking cages, or out in these environments that looked like bad sections of the Tenderloin. But, since then, the SF Zoo has gone through a complete remodel, and the results are so wonderful and animal-friendly, that the place just has a whole new attitude about it. They’re calling it the “New San Francisco Zoo”, and for good reason. It’s like a modern zoo in so many ways, with great habitats for all of the animals, new exhibits and new species of rare and not-so-common beasts.

The SF Zoo is more than 72 years old, and was started by a man named Herbert Fleishhacker, a San Francisco banker who believed that every major city needs a zoo. One of the zoo’s most famous animals during the zoo’s formative years was Monarch the Grizzly Bear, who lived in captivity for 16 years. He sired two cubs, and was the darling of the City by the Bay for a long time.

The zoo’s first major exhibits were built in the 1930’s at a cost of $3.5 million. You can’t even build a Costco for that anymore! Those early structures included the Monkey House, a lion exhibit, Elephant House, a sea lion pool, an aviary and bear grottos. These spacious enclosures were among the first bar-less exhibits in the nation.

In 1984, the SF Zoo got its first Pandas from China, and starting in 1993, the place went through a series of major renovations. It is estimated that the Pandas bring an additional 300,000 visitors to the zoo each year. Every time I go to see them, they’re sleeping. How can they be so tired? They only mate one day a year!

In May of 2004, the spacious new African Savanna exhibit opened, featuring giraffes, zebras, kudus, ostriches and other African wildlife roaming together in an amazing 3-acre habitat. This mixed-species exhibit is more culturally diverse than the Mission District! What’s great about it is that you can get really close to the animals. Just last week I had a wonderful conversation with a zebra. He got mad at me when I told him wearing stripes made him look fat!

The Lipman Family Lemur Forest opened in the summer of 2002, and features five different species of Lemurs in a large outdoor setting. Who even knew there were five species of Lemurs? They also built the Leaping Lemur Café, with a great outdoor dining area featuring a lot of food that is actually surprisingly quite good for a zoo. Zoo food is notoriously bad, and this is at least edible faire, including pasta and pizza. When they put in the Lemur Forest, the zoo also took the opportunity to re-locate the entrance to the zoo so that it now faces the ocean, and constructed the Friend and Taube Family Entry Village, with an expensive gift shop, restrooms, and membership and information booths. I guess if you donate enough cash, you can have zoo buildings and exhibits named after you. If I ever have that kind of money to donate, I want to sponsor the “Ed Attanasio Sea Slug Savanna.”

The SF Zoo has also expanded their Children’s Zoo, Dentzel Carousel, the Connie and Bob Lurie Education Center (Bob Lurie used to own the SF Giants) and the Koret Area Resource Center.

The new zoo is getting great reviews, and one reason for this is that they’ve taken a “conservation through interaction” approach. They believe that if people can see these animals in their wild habitats, that they’ll see the value in them. Education and conservation go hand in hand, and that is what the SF Zoo is preaching right now, which I think is excellent.

I would particularly recommend going when you can see them feeding the lions or the penguins. The lions get better meat than you’ll find in your standard Quarter Pounder with Cheese and the Penguins gobble down fish faster than hungry tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Visit the new San Francisco Zoo soon. It’s a lot of fun! We bought one of their membership cards, which is actually worth it if you plan on visiting the place more than once and/or plan on bringing friends or relatives from out-of-town there. I have one uncle who looks like a big gorilla, and every time we take him there, he bonds with the primates. I just wish he wouldn’t scratch himself so openly!

For more information about the SF Zoo, visit:

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