Select a Zoo



After an early arrival I am one of the first vis­i­tors to enter the Zoo. It is still quiet, except for the call of the black howler mon­keys. A great first impression.

The pri­mate sec­tion is the first one to be explored. Instead of what is rather com­mon in many zoos, at least in Euro­pean zoos, the first enclo­sure after the entrance is not a pond with flamin­gos but a lemur exhibit. The pub­lic walks around this lemur for­est with on one side at ground level a water-​filled moat to sep­a­rate them from the lemurs. On the other side there’s a raised board­walk where you can have excel­lent views on the free roam­ing lemur species (black, black-​and-​white ruffed, red ruffed and ring-​tailed lemurs). The board­walk also pro­vides views on the lemurs’ out­door wire mesh cages that are con­nected to their indoor enclo­sures. Although I call them cages these exhibits still have a height of about 15 metres, which is con­sid­er­able, but com­pared to the adja­cent for­est they look rather small. The Zoo claims that their Lemur For­est exhibit is the largest out­door lemur habi­tat in the coun­try and one of the only ones to give lemurs access to climb numer­ous large, nat­ural trees through­out the exhibit. Well, the trees are large, indeed, and the ani­mals are pro­vided with addi­tional climb­ing enrich­ment fea­tures to express their nat­ural behav­iour. Fur­ther­more, for the lemurs’ con­ve­nience dur­ing cold days infra-​red lamps are pro­vided at some platforms.

Com­pared to this the François’ lan­gur, black howler mon­keys and lion-​tailed macaques at the Pri­mate Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre are worse off in their 2530 m high enclo­sures. These ‘cages’ do not have much nat­ural veg­e­ta­tion, though ample arti­fi­cial enrich­ment fea­tures are avail­able. All in all I am some­what dis­ap­pointed, espe­cially because the great curas­sow (Crax rubra) – a ground dwelling bird, housed together with com­mon squir­rel, has a larger exhibit at its dis­posal than the black howler monkey.

The chim­panzee exhibit com­plex com­prises an indoor enclo­sure and three small out­door islands sur­rounded by dry moats. As you might expect these intel­li­gent pri­mates have access to sev­eral enrich­ment attrib­utes, but unfor­tu­nately they have lit­tle space to roam around. Unlike the patas mon­key (Ery­thro­ce­bus patas) out­door enclo­sure which is a walled area con­tain­ing a large undu­lat­ing rough ter­rain with rocks and var­i­ous shrubs (see also this video).

sfzoo chimp enclosuresfzoo patas enclosure

Before get­ting to the Cat King­dom, as the felid species sec­tion is called, you pass the North Amer­i­can river otter enclo­sure. It has a semi­cir­cle pool with view­ing win­dows on two– thirds of its perime­ter, and two small water­falls. Only a small part of the exhibit con­sists of dry grounds with­out many enrich­ment fea­tures – I am won­der­ing what the feed­ing enrich­ment con­sists of – and not many shel­ters. An inter­est­ing fea­ture here is the nice and com­fort­able look­ing ham­mock, a kind of mattress.

sfzoo lionhouse indoorThe cen­tre­piece of the felids sec­tion is the Lion House that opened in 1940, and not the best exam­ple of how a mod­ern exhibit should look like. This build­ing that con­tain the indoor enclo­sures for the Zoo’s felid species is very spa­cious for the pub­lic but small for the cats. Some ‘cages’ lack high level plat­forms, the floors con­sist of coated con­crete, and there’s no bed­ding mate­r­ial what­so­ever. All the cats have access to out­door enclo­sures attached to the Lion House.

The fish­ing cats have a small but var­ied enclo­sure at their dis­posal with two small pools located in the front of the Lion House, on the right from the entrance. Although there are view­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties all around except for the rear wall and the veg­e­ta­tion is min­i­mal, the design of the enclo­sure pro­vide many loca­tions for the cats to ‘vanish’.

The Suma­tran tigers, 2 adults and a three month old cub born on 10.02.2013, have access to a semi­cir­cle ‘amphithe­atre’ with a deep dry moat (at least 4 m deep) on the public’s side. In addi­tion, there’s a win­dow to sep­a­rate man from tiger as well. Halfway the rocky wall of the moat there’s a plat­form with straw bed­ding, while there is no obser­va­tion plat­form on the actual ground level. Two large trees – of which one facil­i­tates the cats’ scratch­ing behav­iour – and bam­boo shrubs pro­vide shade, while a very small pool can cool down one tiger at the time. The Amur tiger and African lions have an out­door enclo­sure with a sim­i­lar design, but they lack the plat­form halfway down the moat. In fact, the lions have no access to any plat­form or ele­vated part whatsoever.

The female snow leop­ard is housed in an envi­ron­ment that absolutely does not resem­ble its orig­i­nal habi­tat in the Himalayas. Nev­er­the­less, the Zoo has a very good breed­ing track record, pro­duc­ing 42 snow leop­ards since 1958.

As part of their ani­mal enrich­ment pro­gramme the cats are rotated into dif­fer­ent yards. This change of envi­ron­ment expands the ter­ri­tory that they can explore and the scents from the other cats is very stim­u­lat­ing. But the cats rotate over enclo­sures that do not really pro­vide effec­tive hid­ing places or obser­va­tion plat­forms (except for the snow leop­ard enclo­sure), which is dis­ap­point­ing I would say.

sfzoo blackrhino enclThe Zoo keeps two species of rhino, both tak­ing part in the AZA Species Sur­vival Plan – the Indian rhi­noc­eros (Rhi­noc­eros uni­cor­nis) and the east­ern black rhi­noc­eros (Diceros bicor­nis michaeli). Only the Indian rhino is housed in the Pachy­derm Build­ing, prob­a­bly because in for­mer days more ani­mals would be allowed on the same amount of square metres as to mod­ern stan­dards. So, the black rhino can be found oppo­site the felids out­door enclo­sures, on sandy soil with­out any inter­est­ing fea­tures that would make this enclo­sure stand out. The two spec­i­mens are kept in sep­a­rate parts of this very dull envi­ron­ment. The next-​door neigh­bour, the hip­popota­mus, has access to an absolute amaz­ingly clean pool as if it has never been used. The pool, though, is only suit­able for a bit of wad­ing but not for swim­ming, which doesn’t suit a zoo of this size.

On the other side of the Lion House, across from the entrance, the Mag­el­lanic pen­guin (Sphenis­cus mag­el­lan­i­cus) can be found on their pen­guin island with bur­rows cre­ated in a small hill. The Zoo’s pen­guin colony is one of the most suc­cess­ful cap­tive breed­ing colonies in the world, with 205 pen­guin chicks fledged since the old reflect­ing pool was ren­o­vated to accom­mo­date pen­guins in 1984. So, the pen­guins take for granted that the basin sur­round­ing their island is only very shal­low, and doesn’t let this dis­turb their breed­ing behaviour.

The first mixed species exhibit appears in the South Amer­ica sec­tion (I skipped the mixed species African Region at the entrance and save it for the end of my tour), with capy­bara, greater rhea, black-​necked swan, white-​faced whistling duck and other birds. The exhibit also fea­tures giant-​anteater but this species has a sep­a­rate enclo­sure. From the bridge in the exhibit that is called Puente al Sur (Bridge to the South) you have excel­lent views on all the species. For the capy­bara this large enclo­sure must be heaven, though the pool could have been some­what big­ger for them to have a real good swim.

Fol­low­ing the foot­path, cross­ing the rail­road of the steam train ‘Lit­tle Puffer’ brings me to the Cha­coan pec­cary enclo­sure that prob­a­bly has addi­tional tem­po­rary fenc­ing to keep peo­ple on a dis­tance, to have peace and quiet around the lit­ter of piglets that recently has been born.

From the pec­ca­ries I walk to the Griz­zly Gulch, in the North Amer­ica sec­tion, with on my left hand Eagle Island which is sit­u­ated in the lake that is part of Bear Coun­try (see the Zoo map). The two bald eagles that occupy the island are unable to fly due to seri­ous trauma. Both have been res­cued and brought to SFZoo, in 1997 and 2012 respec­tively, when suf­fer­ing seri­ous wing injuries in the wild – the eagle that came to the Zoo in 2012 is miss­ing its right wing. They seem at ease with the sit­u­a­tion and besides walk­ing around on the island they swim in the lake, accord­ing to the infor­ma­tion panel.

The orphaned griz­zly bear sis­ters that are born in Mon­tana inhabit the first impres­sive enclo­sure [accord­ing to my notes] that I encounter at my tour so far (see video). It’s large and com­prises a large pool, a water­fall, a vari­ety of under­growth and sev­eral large nat­ural trees. It looks nat­ural, with a few win­dow panes that let us see this nat­ural world of the griz­zlies. While the row of bear enclo­sures that fol­lows look far more arti­fi­cial with their moat on the visitor’s side and lots of fake rock. For enrich­ment pur­pose the Zoo rotate its polar bears to allow the bears explor­ing each oth­ers scent and have them enjoy the change between grass and rocky grounds. It could be regarded as enrich­ment, but also as impov­er­ish­ment because the enclo­sure with grassy bed­ding lacks a pool. So, no pool for a polar bear! There’s works ongo­ing, but it is not clear to me what the pur­pose is of the con­struc­tion work. Let’s hope it is for the ben­e­fit of the polar bears.

sfzoo sa tropforestReturn­ing to South Amer­ica by just fol­low­ing the foot­path, how easy can it be, I arrive at the SA Trop­i­cal For­est. This house, orig­i­nally an aquatic bird­house, has been a pub­lic works project built by unem­ployed peo­ple – as part of the Work Project Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA) – in the 1930s. It is now home to trop­i­cal birds, ana­conda, tur­tles and frogs. The birds can freely fly around the build­ing while only about one-​third is assigned as aviary with trees and other type of veg­e­ta­tion. The other part of the build­ing that is assigned to vis­i­tors is a clean con­crete and tiled sec­tion which makes this a land­scape immer­sion exhibit to be, so to speak. It is a walk-​through aviary, but then again it is not, although close encoun­ters with the free fly­ing birds are possible.

The next-​door pel­i­can pond is absolutely beau­ti­ful and is a safe haven for pel­i­cans injured in the wild. Accord­ing the infor­ma­tion panel the pel­i­cans haven’t been clipped but their injuries made ampu­ta­tion of part of their wing(s) necessary.

The Aus­tralian sec­tion offers, besides the cas­sowary, a mixed species exhibit with com­mon wal­la­roo, red kan­ga­roo, emu and east­ern grey kan­ga­roo, and a koala exhibit. The Koala Cross­ing, as it is called, is a nice exhibit with the inevitable Abo­rig­i­nal marks and sev­eral small indoor enclo­sures and a large out­door one. Like in other zoos the enclo­sures are bare and non-​specific with floors and walls of easy to clean mate­r­ial. Koalas are not very demand­ing about their envi­ron­ment. As long as they get their hard to digest euca­lyp­tus leaves they can express their nor­mal behav­iour every­where, sleep­ing and doing noth­ing but digest the low-​energy food source. Cal­i­for­nia has thriv­ing euca­lyp­tus trees, so koalas could inhabit there, as their sec­ond home. Of the 600 species of euca­lyp­tus, 50 are known to be eaten by koalas. Hap­pily a dozen of their favourites grow in the Cal­i­for­nia Bay area.

Then awaits the high­light of my tour, the African Region. It com­prises the gorilla pre­serve, the African aviary and the African savan­nah. The lat­ter cov­ers 1.2 ha and is a mod­ern land­scape immer­sion exhibit with amaz­ing fea­tures. Not only because the vis­i­tor is led via a tun­nel to the cen­tre of the area to a per­fect view­ing spot, but also because the enclo­sure pro­vides, like in real nature, shel­ters (‘creeps’) where the small ani­mals can hide or escape from the larger ones. The foot­path gives the oppor­tu­nity to watch the ani­mals and the exhibit with its slightly undu­lat­ing land­scape from dif­fer­ent angles. It is a mixed species exhibit that houses marabou stork, east African crowned crane, ostrich, plains zebra (Equus burchelli), retic­u­lated giraffe, scimitar-​horned oryx (Oryx dammah), greater kudu and yellow-​backed duiker.

sfzoo gorilla enclosureThe gorilla pre­serve is a large pit (about 8 m deep and 80 m diam­e­ter) with undu­lat­ing grounds, rocks and trees. It is one of the largest gorilla enclo­sures in the coun­try SFZoo claims, and it pro­vides oppor­tu­ni­ties all around the pit to see the west­ern low­land goril­las. Next, the African walk-​through aviary is small but nice, with lots of veg­e­ta­tion and a small pond. It houses sev­eral crit­i­cally endan­gered species of birds, such as Wal­drapp ibis and hamerkop.

I ended my tour around the Zoo with the great African Region, which is a great mixed species and mod­ern exhibit, but in gen­eral I think the Zoo could do bet­ter. Although, I really like the fact that they do not use all of the avail­able space for ani­mal enclo­sures, and let the vis­i­tors keep the feel that they walk in a park. In fact, the Zoo doesn’t show its size already at the entrance. I started to realise how big this zoo is (50 ha) only after I passed the Lion House and headed for the Amer­i­cas sec­tion. Nev­er­the­less, part of the empty space could do won­ders for some species and pro­vide them with a larger and bet­ter envi­ron­ment. Espe­cially the enclo­sures for the big cats, François’ lan­gur, black howler mon­keys, lion-​tailed macaques, birds and rhi­nos could be enlarged and/​or enriched.

The group­ing of the ani­mal col­lec­tion is par­tially accord­ing geo­graph­i­cal regions (Africa, Aus­tralia, South and North Amer­ica) at the ‘edge’ of the grounds while in the cen­tre of the Zoo sec­tions with pri­mates, pachy­derms and felids can be found. There’s the odd excep­tion, such as the black rhi­noc­eros, hip­popota­mus and Mag­el­lanic pen­guin, but it is absolutely not just a ran­dom dis­tri­b­u­tion of species across the site. So, the Zoo adapted well to the change of views and mis­sion within the organ­ised zoo­log­i­cal com­mu­nity world­wide over the years. San Fran­cisco Zoo runs sev­eral edu­ca­tional pro­grammes for all ages, and in my view the group­ing of its species col­lec­tion has edu­ca­tional value as well, even if you just come to see the animals.

One last thing I would like to men­tion is the superb web­site of San Fran­cisco Zoo & Gar­dens. The infor­ma­tion about the Zoo’s his­tory and its cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing their ani­mal col­lec­tion, edu­ca­tional pro­grammes and con­tri­bu­tion to con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes, is well-​balanced, pro­fes­sional and acces­si­ble for adults and chil­dren as well, I think.

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
Fol­low me on: