Zoos don’t have the best reputation. They have been described as “prisons for animals,” castigated for the wildlife’s depressed appearance and rightly condemned for cases of animal mistreatment and death. Those concerns have given rise to a strong anti-captivity movement: At the Los Angeles Zoo, activists held rallies in April and May to “free Billy the elephant,” nearly 18 months after City Council members Paul Koretz and Mitch O’Farrell offered the latest motion to remove the Asian elephant from the zoo.
“There is definitely some sentiment in people’s minds, I think, that animals in captivity, in a zoo environment, is a bad thing,” said Rick Schwartz, wildlife specialist and ambassador for the San Diego Zoo. “There is not a soul that works for the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park that wants to see an animal in bad condition.” He invites anyone who believes animals shouldn’t be in zoos, or that zoos shouldn’t exist, to come see for themselves.
Thanks to Animal Planet’s new 10-part series “The Zoo: San Diego,” which premieres Saturday, they can — from the comfort of their living rooms.
“The Zoo: San Diego” is the latest in the cable network’s spate of docuseries spotlighting world-class zoos and aquariums, including “The Zoo,” chronicling the Bronx Zoo; “The Aquarium,” set at the Georgia Aquarium; “Secret Life of the Zoo,” highlighting England’s Chester Zoo; and “Crikey! It’s the Irwins,” revolving around Terri, Bindi and Robert Irwin and their Australia Zoo.
The latest explores the 102-year-old San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in nearby Escondido, which are home to more than 700 species and 6,500 animals, as well as the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation and Research and San Diego Zoo Global. As with its predecessors, “The Zoo: San Diego” also profiles the animal keepers who form a strong bond with their charges, taking care of their nutrition, health and enrichment; the veterinarians who keep them healthy; and the scientists who work on their preservation and protection.
Many of the world’s top zoos — including San Diego’s, which attracts upward of 5 million visitors annually — have long since shed the bars, opening animal parks where wildlife roam more or less freely. And as more species have become endangered or threatened due to poaching, trophy hunters, disease and loss of habitat, zoos have stepped up their conservation efforts. (Edward, a male southern white rhino calf, was born earlier this month at San Diego Zoo Global after artificial insemination. It is the first such birth of a southern white rhino in North America.)
“We have this history as an organization of having unique ways for our guests to experience animals,” Schwartz said, including “the first opportunity to see animals that weren’t in the traditional cement and concrete and metal bars, but instead in a large open exhibit that has a moat separating people. At that time, in the ’20s and ’30s, it was never seen in America before.”
The Safari Park, which opened in 1972, was born from the belief of former director Dr. Charles Schroeder that zoos couldn’t keep trapping animals in the wild and putting them in captivity, Schwartz said. “[Schroeder] was having these thoughts in the ’50s and ’60s, and no one else was thinking that at the time,” he said.
Now, the process works in reverse: The San Diego Zoo returns California condors to the wild, the outgrowth of a conservation initiative among the government and a consortium of zoos to save the species from extinction. In 1987, the Department of the Interior captured for breeding the last of the 27 wild California condors then left in the world.
“The Zoo: San Diego” follows senior zookeeper Rob Webb and his work to save the condor. “I think we are about 30 condors right now, counting our chicks from this year,” Webb noted. “There are now over 500 in the world, with half flying free.”
These condors are freed at five wilderness sites in California and Mexico. San Diego Zoo Global currently has conservation efforts in 45 countries, 380 partners in its conservation work, five conservation field stations and 200 conservation scientists working in the field or the lab.
In other words, zoos and those employed there are committed to combating the impression that zoos are places of suffering for the animals inhabiting them — a commitment “The Zoo: San Diego” underscores.
Zookeepers like Lindsay King, who works with the 25 koalas at the San Diego Zoo, “are passionate people who want to do the best by these animals,” she said. “What we can do through these shows is show that we are providing the best life. We take our job very seriously. So, it’s important to us that our animals are doing well and that we can contribute to saving species in the wild.”
The San Diego Zoo is one of 11 in the U.S. with the beloved Australian marsupials, about which less is known than one might expect. “They are considered vulnerable in Australia,” King said. “But there’s a lot of question about how many there actually are in the population. There certainly have been localized extinctions based on habitat loss and fragmentation and disease. They’re definitely a species that needs to be further studied. I think this show will help.”
The potential reach of modern zoos — and their messages about conservation — is massive: According to the Assn. of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit advocacy and accreditation organization, its 236 member institutions attract more than 200 million visitors each year worldwide. “That’s more than the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball attendance,” Schwartz said.
“It goes back to the dynamics of our culture, [which have] shifted over the last few decades to gain a better understanding of how our existence impacts animals and wildlife. In the old days, zoos were a place where you come and gawk at, laugh at and point at animals. Now, it’s a place where people come and learn.”
‘The Zoo: San Diego’
Where: Animal Planet
When: 8 p.m. Saturday