'Wild Australia' Goes From Down Under to Down the Road at Oakland Zoo

Nicole Lim/Illustration

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Feature on the Oakland Zoo

Victor Alm, a zookeeper at the Oakland Zoo, talks about a train feature in the park and how some animals experience their recreated environment.

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The Oakland Zoo sits on a bit of Knowland Park, elevated above the perpetually busy MacArthur Freeway. For commuters, the only visible evidence is a large billboard placed next to the freeway, but otherwise it's hidden deep in the canopy of the park. Overshadowed by its much larger and incomparably more infamous counterpart across the bay in San Francisco, most people don't know it's there.

When I was a child growing up in the East Bay, my mother took me there frequently to see the giraffes and - my favorites - the squirrel monkeys. Nearby Oakland was a foreign place - glamorous San Francisco was much more familiar - and yet I liked its zoo better; I remembered wondering at the apparent comfort with which the big bears lay on so much concrete in their enclosures at the San Francisco Zoo.

If Oakland and San Francisco are any indication, zoos don't change much. And when they do, it happens one exhibit at a time. The new exhibition at the Oakland Zoo is a notable improvement, providing plenty of what zoo animals typically, and sometimes egregiously, lack: Space.

The name of the exhibit, "Wild Australia," indicates the kind of expectations the Zoo's marketing department is trying to cultivate - those of excitement and unpredictability, two elements often missing at zoos, especially compared with the thrills of, say, "Planet Earth" on DVD.

The signature appeal of "Wild Australia" is being able to enter the enclosure of two strange but presumably safe animals - the wallaroo, a smaller cousin of the kangaroo, and the flightless emu. A slow-moving train, which predates the exhibit, encircles the roughly 3.5 acres of grassy hillside that appear to provide these creatures with a comfortable home, squeaky wheels and chattering children aside.

As the gate slid open and my train entered "Wild Australia," we immediately spotted two emus standing - in stances that suggested conversation - 40 feet from the tracks. Our presence didn't seem to register, nor did their proximity seem like cause for excitement; moments before, the conductor had announced proudly that earlier in the day his train had passed wallaroos resting just two feet from the tracks.

In light of this hope, my Wild Australia experience was, admittedly, disappointing.

For most of the ride, an impressive bay view remained the most captivating sight. Rounding the last turn, the conductor noted a pair of wallaroos uphill to our right. My straining eyes glimpsed a dark crescent of what looked like a wallaroo belly, barely visible over the curve of the hill.

With the gate in sight, now inviting not mystery but a premature ending, I looked hard into the shady undergrowth and spotted a snout and a pair of large perpendicular ears - the unmistakable silhouette of a wallaroo.

While the implied advertisement for "Wild Australia" is "Get closer than you've ever been," my experience proved unfulfilling on that front - and I had seen fewer of the animals than I could have in the former, less elaborate Australia exhibit.

Despite this initially dissatisfying aspect of the ride, it occurred to me that "Wild Australia" was more engaging and similar to what an actual animal encounter might be like than what I've seen at most traditional zoo exhibits.

In striving for authenticity, the Oakland Zoo sacrificed the visibility and instant gratification granted by the more cramped spaces of its older habitats. For a real traveler in the Outback, a wallaroo silhouette would be a welcome and enchanting sight.

If zoos are to more accurately reflect the natural environments of their residents, as appears to be the current trend, visitors are going to have to change their expectations.

In the eyes of zookeeper Victor Alm, "Wild Australia" has improved the experiences of both animal and visitor.

"It's a nice fusion between an exhibit that meets the needs of these animals, and one that makes the visitor experience more powerful," he said.

He cites the more natural behaviors of the animals - for example, the four emus have formed mating pairs - as evidence of the habitat's more accurate replication of a natural environment.

Victor, who works long days as part of the zoo's Animal Care department, was closely involved with "Wild Australia" over the many years it took to get from planning to fruition. His pride is apparent, and - considering the exhibit's superiority, especially in terms of its amenities for the animals - seems justified. But some would say the improvement is irrelevant - why should we have zoos in the first place? His answer is education.

"If somebody comes here, sees an animal and makes a lifestyle change because of it, it's all worthwhile," he said.

I see his vision as most likely realized in the children that positively overrun the place. For them, as it was for me, the zoo is really something to wonder at, one of the few places where a child's imagination and energy are matched by something he sees right in front of him.

But children don't always understand what they have, or how to treat it. Later, as I stood watching a contemplative hyena, four inexplicably shouting kids thundered up to the fence, prompting the frightened creature to scramble halfway across his large enclosure and remain there. In the kids' excitement, they scared it away.

Perhaps this is what Victor meant by education - understanding that the effect we have on animals is great, whether in captivity or the wild. His exhibit is a testament to the idea that if we want to enjoy something, we must take care of it properly.

To me, zoos represent the best and worst of human desires our need to care for and cultivate the natural world, and our eagerness to hold control over it, at the risk of abuse and overindulgence. These traits seem as ancient and permanent to me as the hills on which the Oakland Zoo rests.


Domesticate some squirrel monkeys with Nick at [email protected]

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