Dilettante 19: Backstage at the Zoo

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Twenty years ago this week was the first and last time we went to the San Francisco Zoo. True to form, we only went because they gave us backstage passes.

The debate about zoos will probably rage on until there are no more zoos, but historically, they’re much more of a humane place for animals to be imprisoned than they were even in the ‘90s when this column entry for the Bay Guardian was written. (Not roadside zoos; those aren’t so great overall.)

Far more concerning is the World Wildlife Federation’s report that humanity has wiped out 60% of all wildlife since 1970. You read that correctly: SIXTY PERCENT OF THE WILDLIFE THAT CALLED THIS PLANET HOME HAS BEEN WIPED OFF THE FACE OF IT SINCE I WAS BORN.

“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

Even people who are not fans of zoos have to admit we may need them in case a catastrophic failure of climate change occurs halfway across the globe and we need to clone the remaining population of some animal in order to prevent extinction. Yep that’s where we’re at, 2018.

It’s hard knowing as a GenXer that we have been on this path and that we’re powerless to stop some of it. Mainly pollution and litter and the unmitigated spread of asphalt and box buildings where wildlife habitat used to be, all over the world.

We can find some solutions in this 2018 Living Planet Report PDF from the World Wildlife Org. So let’s review their top findings, leave small footprints, and go out and enjoy nature and maybe even find ways to defend it. OK ok.


This is the 19th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Scroll down or click through to read “The New Zoo Review,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on July 28, 1998.


The New Zoo Review: Carnage in the kitchen, stink fights, and the case for natural selection

by Summer Burkes, 07.28.1998


IN THE YEAR 1796, in one of the roving sideshows of the era, Americans laid eyes on an elephant for the first time. A giraffe, or “cameleopard” as they were called then, arrived in the States in 1837, and gorillas didn’t cross the water until 1850.

Back in the days before photographs, TV, and National Geographic, some of these “curiosities” shows presented human and animal marvels and peculiarities for the masses, exhibiting Siamese twins along with lions and tigers and bears. Medical science and urbanization eventually split these ragtag freak shows into tame, organized circuses and zoos.

But, judging from the clowns on stilts, talking robots, carousels, and roller coasters just inside the San Francisco Zoo gates at the first annual “Twilight ZooFari,” some people still know that the circus/zoo combo is a sure-fire winner.

and also a robot, because it’s the bay area after all

In the car on the way to the zoo, my friends and I wondered why childless people like us even bother to cough up the cash to go to it instead of just watching the Animal Channel or surfing the Web.

Viewing anything live and three-dimensionally is obviously more satisfying than watching it onscreen, but as we discussed the things we wanted to see (wild dogs being fed, rams battling, tigers gnawing on bones, monkeys flinging their droppings at onlookers) we experienced an epiphany: the zoo isn’t so much about education as it is about potential carnage. One friend asked, Homer Simpson-style, if the zoo served beer. We all crossed our fingers.

giraffe hors d’oeuvres

The Twilight ZooFari, a fund-raiser for the privately controlled yet terminally mismanaged zoo, gave curious Homo sapiens a chance to safely view magnificent and funny-looking creatures from home and abroad, but with the added thrill of exclusivity, unlocking the zoo gates after normal hours and open-housing some usually off-limits areas.

In the surprisingly small zoo ‘kitchen,’ catering trays with horse meat, bones, squid, eggs, dead mice, and fish parts all artfully arranged on beds of lettuce (whatever happened to Baby Jane?) sat next to huge bags of feed and grain. An erasable board showed the animals’ daily ‘menu’.

ew, animals eat vegetables?

The ‘hospital’ exhibited X-rays of birds that had swallowed bolts, nails, and fishhooks; stuffed neon tigers laid on gurneys with oxygen masks attached to their cute little yaps.

A barbecue (oh, the irony) was held in Rainbow Meadow, live world music acts performed, and one guy in a tux strolled the grounds, playing guitar while wearing a lion’s head and paws. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen.

Some things I learned at the zoo: Only one male koala can wander in the eucalyptus field at the time, or else fisticuffs ensue. Lorikeets, normally little chirpy, happy, multicolored birds, get really testy when a flock of ducks flies overhead. Orangutans, when confronted with a playground more elaborate than any I ever experienced at school, would rather chew on Rubbermaid trash cans than play in it. A tapir’s natural habitat is, evidently, a desolate suburban yard with a cyclone fence, pool, and sprinkler.

People generally refer to all animals as ‘he,’ even pregnant ones and lionesses. Hippos are in the horse family, and they have two enormous teeth that stick straight out from the middle of the bottom of their mouths. African wild dogs sometimes regurgitate their hastily swallowed food for puppies and lame or older dogs.

apparently tigers love concrete floors and metal bars?

Female lemurs are dominant over males, and the males shake their tails and spray at each other in “stink fights.” Kids still shout the word “retard” at the physically challenged. Rhinos were invented by George Lucas for the Star Wars trilogy and later discarded. And the zoo does have beer. And garlic fries.

Sandwiched in between a 28-year-old who had never been to a zoo (really!) and a nature girl who actually knew what a cassowary was, I felt I had a pretty good grip on the breadth of the adult zoo experience, until we went to the polar bear exhibit. Two people, obviously on a date, watched as the giant arctic bear lounged and panted, appearing from his erratic lip movements to be eating rocks or coming down with Parkinson’s disease.

“I think he’s too cold out here,” said the woman.

“Yeah, he probably wants to go back in that heated little room back there,” her date agreed.

I prayed that natural selection would prevent those people from breeding in the wild. Excuse me, sir – do you have a license for those opposable thumbs?


This is the 19th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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