It’s not all about you at the conservation zoo

I have one main objective for my visit to the San Francisco Zoo—to see the zoo’s baby gorilla. A Huffington Post headline declared that the little bundle of joy, born on 17 July 2013, “might be the most adorable thing” they had ever seen.

With my infant-gorilla spotting priorities in order, I set off for in the Outer Sunset region of San Francisco. The zoo is situated behind Ocean Beach, in what sounds like a rather idyllic location. In reality, the seaside zoo is often shrouded in grey mist, courtesy of the city’s infamous fog (so renowned it even has its own Twitter account—@KarlTheFog). I arrive feeling chilly and gloomy.

My mood improves once I step into the zoo’s Entry Village. Gangly yet graceful giraffes wander around their enclosure, welcoming visitors before we’ve even had a chance to purchase our tickets. The giraffes are part of the zoo’s African Savanna section, which is also home to my anticipated baby gorilla. The zoo also boasts a Primate Discovery Center, Cat Kingdom, South America section, Bear Country, Outback Trail and a Children’s Zoo.

I step through the ticket booth and enter the Lemur Forest. These furry little primates from Madagascar have bright, bulging eyes that give an impression of constant surprise. Walking through the zoo I see an array of other animals—the tuxedoed inhabitants of Penguin Island, a snow-white mountain leopard, and two blind sea lions named Silent Knight and Henry. Many of these animals are free to wander between their internal (i.e. private) and external enclosures. In effect, this means that visitors can’t always see them at their own convenience.

This respect for the animal’s privacy reflects an evolution in the priorities of the San Francisco Zoo, which first opened in 1929. The zoo now prioritizes conservation over exhibition. It also aims to educate visitors, and to encourage a deeper engagement with the animals. The Docent Program, which places volunteer guides around the zoo, helps achieve these objectives.

One docent, whose green uniform is adorned with several pins and badges, has been volunteering as a educational guide since 1972. She says things have changed at the zoo over the decades. “When I first started, people would always ask me the same questions about the animals: What is it? What is its name? How old is it?” Nowadays, she gets trickier questions, such as: “What is the evolution of the anteater’s tail?” (Apparently, the tail acts as a tripod, allowing the Anteater to rear up on its hind legs and defend itself using its front claws).

She has also noticed the evolution in the zoo’s priorities: “now there are fewer animals and they get much more space.” But the modern approach is not without its difficulties. “Every time you come in, it’s like a reconnaissance mission! It’s not like working in a museum where you come in every day and the painting is in the same place. The animals can be doing anything: eating, sleeping, mating, giving birth!”

All this talk of copulation reminds me of my main priority for this zoo expedition—spotting a famously adorable baby gorilla. I can see her mum Nneka munching on some grass, while dad Oscar Jonesy slumps in the doorway to the internal entrance. The baby (who is yet to be named) must be sleeping in the private indoor enclosure, out of sight.

A sign indicates that the baby’s feeding time is already over, which means I’m not likely to see her today. And as I’ve already learned, in this modern era of conservation zoos, my desire to see a cute baby gorilla is not the top priority. I go home, initially feeling a little disappointed. Then again, that docent did say I must come back to see the Children’s Zoo, and I’d like to check out the anteater’s tail. Next time, perhaps?

Photo credit: SF Zoo’s facebook page

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