San Francisco Zoo & Gardens



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 25-30 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 enclosure  sfzoo 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, while at the same time relates to the evolution of species.