I have to confess, I haven’t been following the zoo issue that closely. In fact, pretty much the only thing I knew about it was that a lot of people hate it, and I only knew that because occasionally, people forward me angry messages from one of the zoo neighbors mailing lists either about or to the zoo. They are always like, really angry and often full of weird kind of vaguely threatening statements like “Mr. Parrot is in for a BIG SURPRISE!! There are going to be public meetings about this someday, and then he will find out how the people of Oakland REALLY feel about the zoo!!!” Whenever I see those messages, it makes me feel kind of bad for the neighbors, because I can’t help but think about how shocked and disappointed they’re going to be when they find out that most people in Oakland do not hate the zoo nearly as much as they do, or really at all. Anyway.
What the zoo wants
So, you can get lots of information about the plans from the zoo’s website or this promotional flyer (PDF) or in more detail from this report (PDF) for the Planning Commission meeting two weeks ago. But here’s the short version.
In 1998, the City approved a zoo expansion Master Plan. Part of that plan was the addition of this whole brand new exhibit featuring native California animals. The map below shows where in Knowland Park the zoo currently sits, and where in the park the new exhibit would go.
Now the zoo still wants to do the California exhibit, but they don’t want to do it exactly like the Master Plan says. So now they are coming back to the City asking to make some changes. The changes include the following:
- They want to reduce to total area of the expansion slightly (from 62 to 56 acres)
- They want to build an aerial gondola to take people up the hill to the new exhibit, instead of running a shuttle bus
- They want to build a new Veterinary Hospital
- They want to move the existing overnight camping area
- They want to change where the fence is going to be
You can read the complete list of changes here (PDF).
So like I said, the zoo expansion recently came before the Planning Commission. No decision was made — it was just an informational report. Approval of the plans will come back to the Planning Commission at a later date, and then the City Council.
So first, Oakland Zoo executive director Joel Parrot gave a little presentation about this new California exhibit they want to build. Someone told me recently that Joel Parrot is like, some kind of huge celebrity in the zoo world. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I have to say, his very brief explanation of the new exhibit made it sound pretty cool.
So to get there, you would take the gondola up, and then you walk around this path where you can see California animals like mountain lions and black bears. And also, they will have animals that no longer live in California, but that were native to the state, like wolves and grizzly bears. Here’s the idea:
But my favorite part of the presentation was him listing all these kinds of animals that would be in the exhibit that had nearly gone extinct, and how all these different animals would no longer exist except for the fact that there were these big save the animal campaigns to protect and save that species, and so the exhibit is all about reminding people that through their action, they really can make a tangible difference in the world. How sweet is that? I found it very moving.
Not everyone likes “California!”
So then they moved on to public comment. There was…um…a lot of it. Highlights include…well, basically, the neighbors really do not like the zoo expansion. You can get a decent idea of their general position from this letter, which one of the zoo opponents submitted to the City before the Planning Commission meeting. Here’s an excerpt.
Dear zoo opportunists,
I have read your letter, and I am very alarmed. Let me begin with the words in your letter: “The Oakland Zoo is breaking new ground in science education and conservation that will help save California’s rich and threatened natural history through education, exhibits, collaboration and awareness.” This statement is supported by the following catch phrases:
- “Growing Education & Conservation Leadership”
- “Investing in Oakland & the Bay Area Economy”
- “Taking Care of Knowland Park & the Environment”
- “Enhancing the Regions’ Cultural Assets”
My first scary thought on reading this was: The Oakland Zoo is taking new ground, literally. Unfortunately, I fear that you may accomplish just that, and that you may never cease taking new ground.
I decided to test your real intentions with the help of simple questions: are your intentions altruistic or not. My answer is they are not. Altruistic intentions and actions are usually modest in the manifestations and strong in results. The selection of your words is typical for propaganda cases, in short — brainwashing. For example, you tout an energy-efficient gondola in your plan to prove that you know how to conserve the energy, but if you were really so intent on Conservation and saving energy, you would not expand at all. I do not believe that through your actions that Oakland Zoo and Oakland will become a center of the universe as you are presenting it. And for Goodness sake, it should not be that way. I believe you are promising more than you really plan to deliver.
Basically, they don’t want the expansion because they like having Knowland Park all to themselves. They don’t want to have the zoo’s fence get in the way of their (admittedly stunning) views. They don’t want to have to look at the roof of the zoo’s expanded veterinary hospital. Oh, and they are afraid of the grizzly bears getting out and eating them if there’s an earthquake. Also, the zoo expansion is exactly like the Raiders deal and will cost Oakland taxpayers millions and millions of dollars every year forever.
I realize that I’m making them sound really unreasonable, but the fact is, they sounded really unreasonable. I mean, I listened to them, I watched all the public comment twice, and I really tried to see where they were coming from, but in the end, I just do not buy that the expanded zoo is going to completely obliterate all quality of life of these people. It just does not seem plausible to me. The zoo is just not that scary. Saying the zoo is going to destroy your life is like Larry Reid saying at the last Council meeting that BRT was the same same as tearing up your neighborhood and using eminent domain to build a freeway through it. You hear that, and even if you are not that into the bus and have real concerns about BRT, you’re like “Um, no. It really is not like that.”
My point is, that if these people do have legitimate objections to the zoo’s plans, they did an exceptionally poor job of articulating them. At one point, Commissioner Vince Gibbs was like, can you please list your specific concerns about this for us, so we can try to address them? And the guy who responded was like, all weasely about it, kind of muttering for a while about how he has lots of problems in general and not saying any specific ones, probably because he knows if he said them, they would sound ridiculous. I mean, he’s sitting there going on about how the gift shop is too big. Come on.
But is the zoo evil?
So, like I said, the anti-zoo people really seem kind of…well, you know. But the pro-zoo comment was also totally over the top.
They kept talking about how the California! exhibit is going to make Oakland a big tourist destination, and “put Oakland on the map.” Anytime anyone insists that something will bring tourists to Oakland, I get suspicious. I mean, I support the zoo and look forward to going to see their new exhibit. But what map exactly is this supposed to be putting us on? Because unless we’re talking about a “Zoos of the Bay Area” map, I don’t see it. Are people in New Jersey going to take their kids on vacation to Oakland so they can see a wolf? I don’t think so.
In general, the zoo people seem very delusional about their place in people’s lives. They kept going on and on about how the zoo was such a huge source of pride for the City of Oakland. I hate to break it to them, but a lot of people don’t even know Oakland has a zoo. I mean, sure, those are mostly childless people and all the people I know who have kids are aware that the zoo exists, but a fair number of them have never been, and just take their kids to the San Francisco zoo instead because they assume it is better. (It isn’t, by the way. The Oakland Zoo is much, much better than the San Francisco zoo. Also, you don’t have to worry about your kids getting eaten by a tiger in Oakland.) Anyway, maybe the zoo should be a big source of pride for the whole city. But the reality is that right now, it isn’t and people who think it is should spend a little more time talking to people who don’t work for or live next to the zoo, and get a reality check.
Anyway, with the pro-zoo comment being so over the top, and then listening to the zoo’s talk about how this plan that everyone around it totally hates was made in the 90s with extensive community input and how the people against it now never wanted it in the first place and also it is supported by Larry Reid, I could not help but think of the Oakland Airport Connector. So of course that made me think, oh, maybe I should not trust the zoo, and maybe the neighbors are right after all. But then I thought, well, it kind of seems like the zoo is right in this case, and I think that if someone didn’t know anything and just kind of waltzed into the debate about the airport connector, it would not seem to them like BART was right. I mean, it’s half a billion dollars to go three miles and it would be slower than the bus and run less and will cost each rider double the price of the current bus and is not projected to have any more riders than the bus and people will have to walk farther to get to it from the station. But it will be prettier! I mean, no objective observer looks at that and thinks “Oh yeah, this thing BART wants to do is really cool! Those people objecting to it are psycho!” Anyway. So I did worry about that. But my conclusion was that even though the zoo expansion has some superficial similarities with the Airport Connector, that in and of itself does not mean the zoo is evil.
Oakland should be excited about zoo expansion!
Again, this discussion was merely informational, and the Planning Commission took no action. They did tell the zoo to make an effort to make nice with the neighbors, and listen to them and give them an opportunity to feel included in the planning process.
Listening to the zoo presentation, and hearing the zoo talk about how they were re-envisioning everything they do and how excited they were about the new exhibit made me think of the Oakland Museum, and the awesome renovation they just did with all their galleries being redone totally from scratch. And of course I could not help but then imagine about how amazing it would be if the library had an opportunity to totally re-envision all their operations and use of space and reorganize and have all this cool new stuff for our patrons, and then I started getting really jealous of the zoo. And of course I know the money just isn’t there for the library to do something like that, but that’s no reason to be bitter against the zoo or museum. Instead, it made me appreciate even more how lucky we are in Oakland to have these great enhancements of our cultural institutions going on right now.
If the neighbors do have legitimate objections, then those should of course be addressed. But NIMBYism should not be allowed to get in the way of a project that will bring joy and enrichment to our residents, and will also give people who don’t live in Oakland a reason to come and have a more positive impression of the city. I mean, yeah, I don’t think they’ll be visiting from New Jersey, but it’s not a stretch to see it being a draw for visitors from, say, Castro Valley or something.