I have a vivid memory of my first trip to the Oakland zoo and being stared down by monkeys, watching Rosebud the chimpanzee smoke cigarette butts thrown in his cage, and following the crowd to join the excitement of watching Effie the elephant, and beloved mascot of the Oakland Zoo, get hosed off by her keeper. In my 4 year-old mind, not only did I see Effie but she saw me, and she was smiling, and my life had more importance because I’d seen an elephant and she was my friend.
Six years ago, in southern Africa perched on top of a Land Cruiser, I watched dozens of elephants saunter along and snack on nearby branches. A few blustery adolescent bulls trumpeted at us and babies hid behind their mothers, but the rest carried on oblivious to my presence. Every aspect of life in the bush held some form of fascination, but elephant encounters were special as their interactions revealed distinct personalities at play. At home, elephants stayed in my psyche for weeks as I’d imagine them walking through my neighborhood ripping out yards and felling trees. I hiked in regional parks to recapture the ambiance of Africa’s wild parks, but the trails were too well traveled to evoke similar feelings. But near my childhood home, in the open space of Knowland Park, I found the sense of adventure and serenity I was seeking. Knowland Park is wild and realms of living things surround you, so you notice a bird’s arrival in a nearby bush and you hear the chirp of a cricket in the grass. Looking across the canyon at the hills beyond, I imagined a train of elephants progressing along the ridge. They would not look out of place in these hills where wooly mammoths roamed thousands of years ago.
This ridgeline is where the Oakland Zoo plans to build its $70+ million expansion. Knowland Park is a 500-acre wild public park adjacent to the zoo, and the city has a contract with the East Bay Zoological Society, a non-profit corporation, to manage the zoo and the park. If the Measure A1 25-year parcel tax passes, taxpayer money will go to this corporation whose books and meetings are private, so there will be no public oversight of taxpayer money. The CEO’s, management consultants, business developers, and real estate brokers on the Oakland Zoo’s board of directors plan to develop Knowland Park in order to make the Oakland zoo one of the largest zoos in California. The campaign to pass Measure A1 is likely to be the most expensive local campaign in Alameda County, but none of the many flyers I’ve received in the mail explain why is it necessary for taxpayers to fund the zoo’s animal care and upkeep while the zoo simultaneously moves forward on a $70+ million dollar expansion.
When I take my children to the Oakland Zoo, and look at the African elephants, I see that the yard today is bigger than Effie’s pen, but it is a mere speck of earth in comparison to an elephant’s native habitat. Such is the nature of zoos, and no zoo’s vision should come at the cost of wild undisturbed public open space in suburban areas where there are few remaining native habitats for the animals and plants amongst us. For the present and for posterity, vote NO on Measure A1.