Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Posted on May 5, 2010 – 3:00 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Niki Kangas    photos by Scott Duncan

At one point in history, zoos were no better than circuses in terms of wild animal capture and exploitation. After discovering this sad fact as a child, my curiosity about zoos vanished for decades. I became an avid backpacker, often observing wild bobcats, moose, marmots, deer, and other critters on their own terms.  Then, as I had children of my own, I was surprised to find the Sacramento Zoo in our Lazy Susan of haunts; this nearby showcase of biodiversity’s best was just too good to pass up. I decided that I needed to learn more about modern-day zoos, and in my seeking, was delighted with what I found.  Paired with a rich history, today’s Sacramento Zoo is founded on the ethics of conservation, a genuine respect for the animals and a desire to educate and enrich our community.


Today, 99.9% of animals in zoos are born there, or were traded from other zoos. Like schools, zoos are accredited.  The Sacramento Zoo is, along with hundreds of other zoos in the US, iaccredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This institution has a program called the Species Survival Plan, and under its watchful eye, certain animals whose populations are struggling are bred, or moved to more appropriate zoos- at no charge beyond shipping costs. Under rare circumstances, a zoo animal may be a wild capture if it can’t be found anywhere else in the wild AND it is critically endangered. After breeding and supervising the species back to a healthy number, such animals may be reintroduced into the wild. In this way, zookeepers have become stewards rather than captors.

And, rare animals aren’t all that the Sacramento Zoo endeavors to save- its Green Team, made up of staff members, is striving daily to promote green practices on site, within the staff and among visitors. Also, the Conservation Committee works with programs outside of the zoo to help protect endangered species and their respective habitats on a global scale, usually by donating surplus funding.

Although located on city land, the Sacramento Zoo is run by a non-profit organization called the Sacramento Zoological Society.  The society is made up of over twenty members and manages over fifty zoo employees. When I spoke with the Sacramento Zoo’s public relations coordinator, Lauren Kraft, about zoo funding, she had a copy of their annual report handy. In sum, most of the revenue used to fund the zoo comes from admission. In 2008, they obtained 13% of their funding from the city, but that has decreased steadily with budget cuts, and the zoo has made up the difference with their strong membership program, special events, individual and corporate donations from our community, and various other programs.

Much of this money is spent on revamping the animals’ habitats as more is learned about making them comfy. This attitude toward allocation was adopted in the ‘80s when public awareness of animals’ needs prompted zoos to begin trading out yesterday’s cages for tomorrow’s glass enclosures or moats, that, yes, still are cages, but allow visitors to better view the animals and more closely simulate a natural environment.

Just this year, the Sacramento Zoo’s Tall Wonders Giraffe Exhibit was opened.  The project took just one year to complete and came in under budget to boot. The three female giraffes of Sacramento now enjoy an improved and expanded indoor and outdoor facility. The “Giraffe House” is a state-of-the-art lofty abode featuring multi-functional stalls used to separate the giraffes, and is heated at night. There is now room for a male to come join the party, and if babies are born as a result, well, there’s room for them too. The best part about this exhibit is the new walkway – built so that visitors may see the giraffes eye to eye from an observation deck. “If you’re down on the ground, you’re really looking at their knees, so getting up on the deck is a whole new view that showcases the magnificent giraffe,” explains Kraft.

New animals are born at the zoo often, and in fact, a female tiger cub came into our little world on March 18th and is doing well.  Still, zookeepers wait to breed animals until it is recommended by the Species Survival Plan.


In June, 1927, the city of Sacramento opened the William Land Park Zoo by gathering an array of animals from area amusement parks, including Oak Park’s Joyland. The original zoo was only 4.2 acres with a collection of about forty animals, including monkeys, raccoons, birds, and deer.  According to the Zoo’s website, which is a font of information (I highly recommend checking it out: http://www.saczoo.com, and though blogs are usually the bane of my life, theirs is actually a good read: sacramentozoo.blogspot.com), the next animal purchase was in 1954, this time a giraffe from Africa. Shortly thereafter, the Sacramento Zoological Society was formed to support the growing zoo.   It wasn’t until 1997, however, that the city approved turning over the day-to-day management of the zoo to the proven and responsible hands of the non-profit.

In the early sixties, the Sacramento Zoological Society had raised enough funds to purchase additional acreage for the zoo, boosting it to its current 14.3 acres. A multitude of habitats were built afresh for new incoming animals, including a grizzly bear named “Bruno” and two orangutans. And with such improvements come costs: the zoo ceased being free family entertainment for all and began charging a quarter admission to fund the maintenance and growth of the park.

The city council voted to change the name of the zoo to the Sacramento Zoo in 1970. At that time, the reptile house was built, and the Sacramento Zoological Society introduced a docent program to educate zoo visitors.  During the ‘80s, beyond the aforementioned habitat improvements, the Sacramento Zoological Society also adopted a long-term master plan to oversee the continued improvement of the zoo. In the ‘90s, the Rare Feline Center, the Golden-headed lion tamarin and snow leopard exhibits, and the Lake Victoria Complex with its marvelous anthology of waterfowl and flamingoes, were built. And due to space limitations, “Winky” the elephant was moved to the Detroit Zoo. But that wasn’t getting the Sacramento Zoo down; by the end of the ‘90s, the zoo had over 10,000 members, let alone its myriad of unique visitors!

In 2000, an innovatively designed ecosystem of multiple species that includes the red panda and several Asian bird, fish and turtle species was christened the Claire Mower Red Panda Forest. Over the next few years, Sacramento added to its inhabitants list a Saki monkey, eleven leopard tortoise eggs, some crested screamers, ten more flamingoes, a female jaguar, a female bongo, a Sumatran orangutan, and four-thick billed parrots- that’s the only parrot species native to the US. Due to deforestation, this bird’s numbers have been declining, but thanks to American zoos’ efforts, their population is growing once more.

My personal favorite observation point, the Lemurs of the Lost World Exhibit, was opened in 2004 following the tour of a traveling white alligator. The lemur habitat features Coquerel’s sifakas and black and white ruffed lemurs, which are primates like us- in many ways watching them is like taking a good long look in the mirror. The year after the completion of the lemur exhibit oversaw the edification of the Dr. Murray E. Fowler Veterinary Hospital, and upon its opening in 2006, it took in its first patient, a pregnant Sumatran tiger who received an ultrasound that visitors were able to observe on a terrace which revealed three healthy fetuses that would later be born as an all-boy cub litter to the lucky mama.

2007 marked the zoo’s 80th anniversary, and to celebrate, the zoo arranged to have a temporary penguin exhibit which turned out to be a smash hit, and opened a train ride for big and little engineers.  In spring 2009, the Conservation Carousel, featuring thirty-two lifelike animals carved from wood and hand-painted, took its first load of passengers for a ride. Educational messages are inscribed within the carousel to teach riders about the importance of biodiversity and the very real threat of losing our rare animals. This ride has raised much funding for the zoo, and for a donation you can buy a display of your name on an animal.  Only a few animals remain up for ‘sponsorship’ – within two years, sponsorships of the carousel have raised over $100,000-  plus mountains of ticket fare!

How pleasant it was to discover that my assumptions were no longer relevant, and that now, I could literally look a giraffe- and over a hundred other species- in the eye, while not feeling a shred of guilt, right here at home! And as my four-year-old son sits atop his daddy’s shoulders, pointing out the big cats, all my doubts I’d had are obscured by his enormous grin.

The zoo is open daily, and hours change seasonally. During the summer, they are open 9AM -4PM with extended hours on some “Twilight Thursdays”. Combination tickets for those who wish to visit the Zoo and Fairytale Town in the same day are also available.

Ticket pricing and other information is available at the Zoo’s website, http://www.saczoo.com

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