Close the San Francisco Zoo

hotlinked SF Chronicle photo of Tatiana
Rest in peace, Tatiana

I have no animosity, for once, toward the police in this matter. They respond to a call of a person killed and more injured and at least one tiger on the loose, a dire threat roaming in a place where there are small children around: of course they shot Tatiana. I hope it was a clean shot. I’m not second-guessing their actions any further than that.

Still, the whole thing is an obscenity. It should never have happened.

I am not an absolutist on the subject of zoos, and I suspect I never will be on a planet where the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum exists. The Desert Museum’s explicitly ecological outlook makes it the only zoo I’ve seen where the old excuse “we exist to teach the public about the animals we keep” doesn’t ring completely hollow. There they have somewhat more naturalistic settings for their big cats, and yet the enclosures there are still about a thousandth of a percent the size of a desert cat’s normal territory. It is still imprisonment. It’s just mitigated better than at most such prisons.

But you don’t have to be an absolutist to abhor the San Francisco Zoo. Tatiana herself was the center of another incident just a year ago in which she mangled a zoo worker’s arm: cage design was found to be the problem. The outdoor enclosures are ludicrously insufficient for big cats. The zoo has a bad record in keeping large animals of any type. Check out the incomplete incident report at the end of this article, for instance. There’s at least one shameful incident missing from the list, in which visitors were able to steal a koala from the zoo without anyone noticing.

As I imagine many of the people reading this morning’s news story did, I felt rage for a moment at the injured zoo visitors, who it seems may have brought on the attack by taunting Tatiana. It may well be that the rage was uninformed and the article unfair to the victims. But if the speculation turns out to be justified, feeding the survivors to the other cats, though it might serve as a deterrent to such taunting in the future, would be beside the point.

[Update: it looks as though Carlos Sousa may have died trying to distract Tatiana from attacking his friends. If this is true, add another innocent life to the cost of the taunting.]

There will always be testosterone-driven idiots in the world. A zoo that does not operate with them in mind is not caring painstakingly enough for its animal charges.

The zoo has its devoted fans, and I assume many of its staff members truly want what’s best for the animals. How could they not? But the zoo itself is explicitly designed for gawking rather than education, for the entertainment of the visitors rather than the emotional health of its animals.

It’s time to shut it down, and to find sanctuaries where the animals can live out the rest of their lives in a less circumscribed and truncated fashion.

And in the meantime there is one less tiger in the world, killed for acting like a tiger.

Photographer Susan L. Pettitt, who would almost certainly find much to argue with in this post and should not be held responsible for anything I say here, took some beautiful photos of Tatiana. What a gorgeous, gorgeous girl she was. The world is emptier without her.

Update: More photos of Tatiana.

21 thoughts on “Close the San Francisco Zoo

  1. Jeff Fecke

    One of the reasons I’ve long supported the Minnesota Zoo is that they do try to design enclosures with the animals’ welfare in mind.  There are a few enclosures from the early days that are imperfect, but the longer they go the more space animals get.  It means that sometimes, you don’t get a great view of, say, the Siberian Tigers.  But that’s a fair trade.

    Zoos like Frisco and St. Paul’s Como Zoo, on the other hand, aren’t really there to support the animals.  They’re there to attract gawkers.  That’s fine, if one doesn’t mind the crazy pacing polar bear that Como boasts, or the occasional mauling. 

    One can’t blame the police here; they did what they had to do.  But one absolutely can blame the zoo, and one should.

  2. Greg Laden

    I remember the road runner exhibit at the Sonoran museum.  The road runner was allowed to go in and out as it pleased, and like to spend time (especailly in the rain) under the bench just outside its “enclosure.”

    Anyway, my comments on Tatiana may be of interest to you:

  3. ilyka

    This is everything I might have wanted to say about the whole mess, but I suspected you’d probably say it better.  And lo and behold, you did.

  4. sravana

    Testosterone-driven, indeed. The dead boy was only 17.
    I remember a friend of mine commenting that the most important part of raising a boy is keeping him from killing himself… because boys will be boys. Yes, they were idiots -and as you say, the zoo needs to be protecting the animals from idiots, as well as the opposite.

    Between this and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, you know it’s been a bad, bad, day (or couple of days, rather.)

    Glad to hear the bit of good news re: Coalie.
    Charles, give her a pat for me…

  5. omegapet

    I last visited ‘Discovery Kingdom’ (formerly Marine World), a Six Flags park in this area, about 15-18 years ago with my children. 
    I was infuriated to see their prize attraction:  an Orca (‘Killer Whale’). The poor animal seemed to be about 20 feet long and was ‘performing’—and living—in a 35-foot wide tank.  Prison inmates have more space (in ratio to their size), and they usually get some regular outside exercise. 

    I’ve never been back.

    I have the same feelings at zoos and rarely visit them, although newer exhibits seem to be more spacious.  In human terms, maybe you’re been imprisoned in a hotel, instead of only a broom closet, for life.

    SFZ just put down a baby giraffe, and they lost 2 elephants in 2004.  They need to rethink their situation entirely and retire the 60-70 year-old buildings/structures they use for the big cats and pachyderms.

  6. decrepitoldfool

    It’s just painful for me to even think about zoos.  And from comments I’ve seen elsewhere it is apparently common for people to taunt animals in cages. I did not know that, and it gives me a sick feeling to think about that too.  There was a time when people would intervene if someone used strong language in the presence of a lady or a child, but who steps in for the animals?

    Damn it, there are 7 billion of us, and a few thousand tigers left.

  7. Hugo Schwyzer

    With you completely.  Whatever you might think of PETA, they have done a great deal to discourage the popularity of zoos.  Admittedly, they are not the only charity working to do so.

    Do they still call the zoo in SF the Fleishacker Zoo?  I remember taking a field trip there when I was in high school.  Ugly place.

  8. Sven DiMilo

    Wasn’t it here that I found this article linked? (from The Sun last month, on zoos. I must refrain from full agreement.)

    When I read that I had just finished You Belong in a Zoo, by Peter Brezaitis, a memoir by a longtime reptile keeper at the Bronx Zoo and later the director of the renovated Central Park Zoo. recommended for a (funny) behind-the-scenes look at zoo management, old school and new. To his credit, Brezaitis is against the display of large mammalian carnivores.

    Most zoos today are making large, behind-the-scenes, non-token efforts to preserve biodiversity, both charismatic megamammalian and (much more importantly) not, in at the very least a diluted habitat-free version, for the future. For many species, habitat is gone, probably forever. The public needs to be led through a major revamping of the justification and expectations of public zoos. Maybe this tragic event can help catalyze that seachange. If seachanges are subject to catalysis.

  9. Jeff

    I have never been a big fan of zoos. Even as a child, when our parents would take us to the different zoos here in California I always left feeling sad for the animals, although I was never quite sure why.

    The reason became crystal clear when I visited the Los Angeles Zoo back in the early 1990s. I hadn’t been inside a zoo since I was very young, but I almost at once felt that same sadness as I went from one animal to the next. What brought on my sadness was the look in the eyes of the different animals. Most looked depressed, others had a hopelessness about them, and a few of the more intelligent ones, like the primates and some of the elephants, looked out of their pen with contempt.

    It’s no wonder orangutans hurl feces at the patrons. I would too if I were them.

  10. decrepitoldfool

    As some proto-fascist put it in a thread about this incident: “Sorry but you liberals just will never understand; people first, animals second!”

    I often hear similar sentiments in the context of anti-environmentalism.  As if our fate and theirs could be separated.

  11. Linda

    I live in San Francisco not far from the zoo.  In my opinion, we do not need a zoo here in San Francisco and if it is shut down as a result of this tragic incident, it will be fine with me.  I never thought these animals should be kept in this environment in the first place.  The weather in this area is not even remotely similar to that found in most of these creatures natural habitats and confining them in enclosures which are too small is cruel and inhumane.  It is time to say goodbye to the San Francisco Zoo once and for all.

  12. Sherwood

    Linda, I lived for many years (almost two decades) close to the San Francisco Zoo—Parkmerced and the Richmond district.  Not to be too flip, but the weather in that area is not even remotely similar to that found in most comfortable human habitats, either.  In fact, I remember seeing a mid-1800’s map of SF on which everything west of Twin Peaks was labeled “uninhabitable—fog.” 

    (That was a time in which fog itself was thought to carry malaria and other diseases, which is why early 1800’s settlements in Chris’s Upstate NY were on ridge tops, not in valleys.)

    I’d like to see a zoo sometime in which every animal cage has next to it a human prisoner’s cage with appropriate informative and educational signage.

  13. Lesley

    All zoos are businesses and most exploit the language of conservation in their marketing campaigns.  Even those zoos with the most heinous conditions use the language of conservation.  Zoos that breed endangered species do so to perpetuate their captive animal population. (Circuses do this too, and many circuses now use the language of conservation in their campaigns with the public.)

    Very few animals bred by zoos and circuses are ever returned to the wild and most live in inadequate environments. 

    True sanctuaries are the answer.  (Unfortunately some outfits exploit the word “sanctuary” to raise funds when they are nothing of the kind.)  The Association of Sanctuaries has a list of reputable sanctuaries.

    There are three I can personally vouch for.

    PAWS/Ark 2000 in San Andreas (Pat Derby and Ed Stewart are doing an amazing job with many rescued animals, including Siberian tigers.)

    The Elephant Sanctuary near Hohenwald, Tennessee.  This place is heaven on earth for captive elephants.

    Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant and rhino orphanage in Tsavo, Kenya.  All of her rescues are returned to the wild.

  14. Linda in New York

    I lived in Berkeley for about 6 months in 1976. I decided to take the neighbor boy and my daughter to the zoo. At the time it was called the Fleischacker Zoo. My daughter was 5 and the little boy was 6. While strolling casually past the tiger enclosure, the little boy suddenly climbed over the fence. I immediately got him out of there, but I have told the story through the years of how easy it was for him to climb over that little fence. On the news I was shocked to see that everything is the same as it was 30 years ago. The enclosure is exactly as it was then. It is a small fence surrounding a grassy area which then falls off to a sheer cliff, then a moat at the bottom and then the tigers roaming around in their pit. The jury is not out yet on whether the boys were taunting Tatiana. ( and she was a gorgeous tiger ) But if they were, she saw them as prey and was just acting like a tiger. I can see how she might be able to get up that far, if she was motivated enough.
    I was only at the zoo that one time, but have been to others since that time. I have mixed feelings concerning zoos. In some cases there might be justification in terms of trying to save a species whose habitat has been destroyed. At the same time it seems cruel to place an animal in an enclosure that is too small, or even if it is bigger, it is still an enclosure, thereby frustrating it’s natural instincts to forage for food or just to get enough exercise. I have noticed in the last few years it seems that more animals are getting sick in our local zoo. Recently it was a rhinoceros, a baby elephant that died in the process of being born, a California sea lion. We lost our Arctic fox when it escaped and ran down a highway where it was hit by a car. To our local zoo’s credit, our two elephants are walked several miles a day in the zoo proper, and their enclosure is quite large, inside and out. It was not always that way.
    Chris, you have said it all, quite well, what needs to be done. I will do further reading on the highlighted areas mentioned in your essay.

  15. sadie.sabot

    thanks for this.  It’s all so damn stupid.  I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of instilling an appreciation of animals in people, zoos in fact re-identify animals as commodities and objects.  I’ve been to the SF zoo a few times recently (not proud of that, no) and i see what people do…the way people cruise through is kinda like channel surfing.  look, a polar bear (pacing back and forth), look, a tiger, look, penguins, look, popcorn!  I’m now feeling like it would be better for people to never see certain animals but only to see films of them and see pictures, than to see them in such bizarre and inhumane settings.

    I hadn’t heard they recently put down a baby giraffe…wtf??

  16. Southwest1978

    This whole thing is really sad. First for the dead kid, and then for Tatiana. Ignorance runs rampid in our world. These kids just utimately proved it true once again. Sure Tatiana has had run ins in the past, and enclosures should have been upgraded then. But they weren’t. The other saddness to this is we as people owe these animals a fairness that they often do not get. Tatiana was most likely provoked, and they killed her for it. We as “gauking creatures” impose on the lives of our wild kingdoms, and cram them into exhibits where such mundane stupidity has easy access to them, and as a result when they do attack it’s them that pay the ultimate price for doing what they are made to do, which is be WILD. I am sorry for the kid that died and yes he should’ve lived a long life, but if the level of intelligence runs so low among his “friends” that they would do something like this and ultimately put themselves, friends, family, or other people in general in danger, then they should definately not be able to ‘get anything out of this” other than a big fat sentence in criminal court. Tatiana paid the ultimate price for her role in the whole matter, and because we imposed on her “wildness” and encaged her for exhibit, then they should have to pay the ultimate price as well. Fair is fair, as in an eye for an eye. I just think it is incredibly UNFAIR to shoot Tatiana and other big cats for attacking when they are provoked. What if we shot the “provokers” instead? I find it incredibly horrible that the incident even took place, and yes maybe the SF Zoo is partly responsible, but when people provoke the beast that is always within the animal, then they will find a way out of their enclosure, and no matter what they will likely take advantage of that. I say before anyone agrees with the fact of “man before beast” please think of one thing: “If someone was shooting a sling shot, at you or your baby, how would you react? and when you did react, how would you expect to be “punished” if you killed the original attacker?” I could wish for all stupidity to be banished from the world but of course that would never happen. If we are going to shoot animals if they attack then we should know the whole story first, they could’ve tranquilized her first.  It’s horrible the way it has played out, but one fact to keep in mind is: “THIS WAS COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE”.

  17. C W

    It is heartbreaking that the only way to save this beautiful endangered species from poachers is to
    keep them caged, and unable to live in this world as they were designed to live. 

    I feel saddened by the whole incident. It truly breaks my heart. There is no doubt in my mind that Tatiana was taunted, and now one of our beautiful endangered species is gone. Why do people have to be so ignorant and foolish.
    I have to believe that she is now free, free at last to roam the fields of heaven with joy.

  18. Sven DiMilo

    All zoos are businesses and most exploit the language of conservation in their marketing campaigns.  Even those zoos with the most heinous conditions use the language of conservation.  Zoos that breed endangered species do so to perpetuate their captive animal population. (Circuses do this too, and many circuses now use the language of conservation in their campaigns with the public.) Very few animals bred by zoos and circuses are ever returned to the wild and most live in inadequate environments.

    Clearly you think that “animals” means “big mammals.” You don’t know what you’re talking about. Zoos are in the forefront of captive breeding efforts for all kinds of animals, including endangered birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects that are never exhibited. It’s just simply not true that zoos use conservation rhetoric solely as a PR cover for their pecuniary interests. See here for the best—but far from the only—example of what I’m talking about.
    I’m glad that tired old circus elephants and tigers have a “sanctuary” to walk around in, but those are places to be nice to fellow mammals with no—zero—conservation value whatsoever.
    There are turtle species that are extinct in the wild—whole evolutionary lineages that now exist only in zoos. Maybe someday useful habitat will become available, but for now they exist only in “arks.” The public exhibition-slash-education mission of zoos is a different subject, but please do no belittle the sincere efforts of people who really care about animal conservation.