Monday, July 12, 2021

To Zoo Or Not To Zoo

Okay, okay, I get it.

The San Diego Zoo holds a world class reputation, as zoos go, and no trip to America's Finest City is complete without a fly-by to visit the animals. 

Especially those adorable Giant Pandas, right?


Sadly, the pandas were shipped home to China back in 2019; seems they were here only on a 23-year-long loan to America and their time was up.

But still, San Diego's zoo is home to some super cool animals that don't live in our own Woodland Park Zoo so we decide to go for it. We pull into the parking lot nice and early for a full day's adventure, pony up the $62 one-day admission fee, grab a couple of maps, and get down to business.

After some quick negotiations and a bit of spade work with the map - we Streichers are natural-born navigators - we settle on the key targets for our visit, and a winding route, complete with pre-planned options for changing our minds! 

Sure, we work quite a few animals into our game plan, but our top priorities are simple:

Polar bears.

So off we go. By boarding a Kangaroo Bus, which allows us to hop on and hop off at five designated stops around the zoo, we position ourselves at the farthest corner of the park and spend the day walking back toward the entrance. 

Soon enough, we find our first favorites enjoying a spectacularly sunny San Diego summer day.

Two of the zoo's three polar bears are busy, apparently hunting for hidden food, and delight us by thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny of their fake arctic home. Check the water, check the water!! I silently urge them, and sure enough, my Inception tactics work.

 ^ "I smell a seal carcass and it smells delicious!"

^ "Nope, no seal sandwiches down here in the water. I'll keep looking."

^ "Yoohoo! Seal meat! Come out, come out, wherever you are."

I nearly collapse with delight as the bears swim by, their faces inches from my own, in their underwater lagoon. After this glorious half hour of polar bear heaven, my zoo dreams have all come true. I could go home right now and call the day a complete success. But my daughters are dead set on viewing the tigers, so agreeably, off I go.

* * * * *

We strike gold at the tiger exhibit too. 

In one viewing area, two Malayan tigers are wiped out in the midday heat, dozing just a few feet from the one-way glass. These guys are twins, Cinta and Berani, and after drooling over them for an easy thirty minutes, we walk around the corner to find their brother, Conner, enjoying a little me time in his own private lair.

"Much better to nap here than back in Kuala Lumpur."

And now with our major boxes ticked, we pause to wait in a not too terribly ridiculously long line to buy our lunch. In the comfortable shade of our patio table umbrella, we enjoy a few only moderately overpriced tacos, and talk over our impressions of the day.

* * * * *

In our post-polar-bear-and-tiger-viewing-glow, we're all definitely glad that we came. But a few niggling thoughts are creeping into the perimeter of our minds.

Zoos are weird. I mean, these are real, live animals - sentient beings - that deserve to spend their lives in the actual environments and social settings for which they were biologically designed. While our friends, the polar bears and the tigers, seem reasonably content in their artificial surroundings, surely a fabricated yard in the middle of an arid sub-tropical city is a cheap and unsatisfactory substitute for the Arctic Circle or the equatorial jungles of Malaysia, for goodness sake. 

Yes, I know that some zoo animals have suffered injuries that leave them incapable of living in the wild; others provide much needed genetic stock to critically important breeding programs that keep certain species afloat. 

And there is much to be said for how the experience of visiting a zoo and seeing these beautiful animals with our own two eyes does much to prepare the human heart and mind for the issues of conservation and environmental protection. 

Still, I wouldn't want to be the cheetah who spends the morning pacing back and forth in his tiny fenced enclosure, or the giraffe who stands stock still eating grasses stuffed into the crevices of fake trees, all in the name of good science, when both beasts should by all rights be out gallivanting across the wide open African Savannah, would you?

Of course, these are the age-old ethical questions with which the modern zoo must wrestle, and baby-faced neophytes such as myself have no right to sit at the table and fuss. But there are alternatives approaches to zookeeping that perhaps better honor the animals. I've run across the concept of the sanctuary zoo which focuses less on entertaining the human masses with furry eye candy, and more on helping the animals who truly need help, and I'm all for that. 

* * * * *

In the meantime, as professional zoologists and the animal rights people hammer out a just solution to these important questions of our humanity, my daughters and I sit in the shade of our table umbrella, and squeal with delight as we watch the videos we just took of the polar bears' swim. 

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