A Zoo Changes Its Stripes

It's morning at the San Francisco Zoo, and the sea fog that usually shrouds the eucalyptus forest here has burned off. A few peacocks are squawking. Keepers shlump around in their rubber boots. We're touring the vacant Monkey Island, once home to 70 spider monkeys.

"See that ledge right there?" one of the former keepers says, pointing to a perch over a tunnel entrance. "That's where they used to nail us when we came through the door. I can still remember their little butts hanging over."

Ingratitude? No. Revenge, I now realize.

This 55-year-old mound of concrete was once one of the zoo's most popular attractions. As a little girl back in the '60s, I longed to leap the moat and join the spry, funny creatures scampering around on the big rock. But had I known then what I know now, I would have been heartbroken.

Monkey Island exemplifies the poor--sometimes appalling--animal management that characterized many zoos for much of this century. State-of-the-art when it was built in the late 1930s, it featured moats instead of cages so visitors could see the animals better. But Monkey Island was never an appropriate home. Trees were planted, but the monkeys ate them--so the tree-dwelling creatures had nothing natural to climb. At night, keepers lured them into a cramped, dank concrete cell with food just slopped on the floor. If they tried to eat outside, they had seagulls to battle. If an animal got sick and died, it was simply replaced. Until the 1980s, this zoo didn't even have a full-time vet. As for easing new members into the colony, the keepers "just picked up the pieces later if there was aggression," says General Curator David S. Robinett, shaking his head.

But there's a happy ending in sight. Like dozens of other city-operated zoos that suffered as funds went to higher priorities, the San Francisco Zoo is being reborn, as private sponsors, the public, and the cities work together to chart a new mission for zoos and create humane habitats for the animals.

From the demolished rubble of the old Monkey Island, a seven-acre South American Gateway will soon rise. Visitors will stroll along a caged-in boardwalk past a "cloud forest" aviary, authentic flora for tamarind and howler monkeys, and a stream in which tapir--imagine a cross between a pig and a rhino--will swim. Amphibians will lurk on the banks. There will be cages for sick animals, holding rooms where other ones can retreat and rest, and procedures for acclimating new inhabitants.

Making all these things work takes modern management--something new at this zoo. Its director, David Anderson, an expert on primates, arrived here in 1990 to find mistreated animals, keepers protesting unsafe conditions, and a distracted, not to mention cheap, city bureaucracy. The big cats' undersize, chain-link cages were a disgrace. And the stalwart otters Ott and Knott had to make do with a stark, sterile swimming pool. For ambience, they had a doghouse and a log.

WET AND WILD. It was Atlanta that set the standard for progressive zoos. In the mid-1980s, the American Zoo & Aquarium Assn. yanked the certification of the city's zoo on the grounds that it mistreated animals: Among other shockers, an elephant disappeared, only to turn up in a circus--dead. Having raised $20 million from private donors and corporate sponsors, Zoo Atlanta is now considered a model. It features environments appropriate to the Southeast, such as an Okefenoke Swamp habitat that, when finished, will host critters ranging from black bears to alligators. Attendance is way up.

At Anderson's urging, San Francisco in 1993 joined the growing list--one-third of the nation's 161 certified zoos and aquariums--to turn over management to local nonprofit zoological societies. Once the city bureaucracy stepped aside, the Zoological Society made huge strides in attracting the attention and resources of the private sector and wealthy individuals. So thanks to the likes of Chevron Corp. and McKesson Corp., the cats have comfortable new digs. Ott and Knott now cavort around waterfalls and natural rocks and vegetation. Next, those crabby orangutans are finally going to get something more authentic than their ugly green-metal jungle gym to swing on.

Freed from bureaucratic stuffiness, zoo officials have been having fun devising such fund-raising gimmicks as auctioning off the right to name animals. One of San Francisco's hottest events: the Valentine's Day Sex Tour, open to adults only, who get a new perspective on the birds and the bees from seeing how the rhinos and yaks do it.

The entertainment value of zoos can be at odds with their humane and scientific agendas, though. Bigger enclosures and expansive flora make animals harder to spot. To compensate, there are multimedia theaters, classes, seminars, and behind-the-scenes tours. In short, "we're trying to gray the distinction between the front and the back of the house," says Margaret Burks, executive director of the San Francisco Zoological Society. The stuff in back is often fascinating. At Louisville and Cincinnati, for example, researchers are perfecting the technology for freezing the sperm and embryos of endangered species. In fact, out there in the real wilds, things have gotten so bad that some species are extinct everywhere but in zoos (table).

As much as I support conservation, however, I would hate to see zoos stray too far from their original mission: giving all of us, but children in particular, the primal thrill of standing 20 feet from a roaring lion or shivering at an alligator's crusty disdain. No CD-ROM will ever match the wonder, delight, and kinship with nature I felt here the first time a chimp gave me the raspberry.

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