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October 23, 2012 > Oakland Zoo needs 'yes' votes on A-1

Oakland Zoo needs 'yes' votes on A-1

By Denny Stein

It used to be that going to the Zoo was just a fun family outing. But Zoos are no longer solely in the entertainment business. Today's zoos are serious zoological classrooms and wildlife rescue centers; incubators for endangered species, and nurseries for native fauna. The Oakland Zoo (known affectionately as OZ), here in Alameda County, has its hands full with all of this very serious and essential business. So, when you pack up and take off for the Oakland Zoo, you're going to get two experiences for the price of one, an education in addition to fun.

The stunningly magnificent tigers and lions at OZ are an example of the zoo's important mission. Lions, Leonard and Sandy (names not quite as magnificent as their owners), live in an outdoor exhibit that encompasses wooded hills, a ravine, and grassy areas studded with boulders and fallen logs. Is this enough space for two such beasts? Territory size, for lions, depends on resources - basically food and females. In the African wild, huge savannahs provide unlimited herds of "protein" and access to several packs of females. Walking the bounds of one's territory can be arduous. But here, in the protected land of OZ, Leonard has Sandy, and the two of them are provided with the best diet that the zoo can afford.

Within their territory there is no competition, there are no predators. To keep them stimulated, "enrichment activities" are introduced and rotated. Play and Prey, such as camel hair boxes with treats inside, and big stuffed animals coated with meat-scent are left out in their territory. Large "indestructible" fifty pound balls and fabricated play objects are scattered around; a zebra built out of barrels and piping, painted with black stripes, a whimsical intern project, waits its turn by racks of rubber studded balls and giant plastic pickles.

Lions adapt easily to their environment and at the Oakland Zoo Leonard and Sandy have it far better than where they came from - an abusive private collector with a dozen other exotic cats and a wolf, in Texas. The Texas SPCA intervened and relocated the lions to the Oakland Zoo. That was twelve years ago. The two tawny beasts are now fed and cared for by keepers who admire and respect them. And it seems the respect is mutual: when a small group of reporters visited the lions' night enclosure, the animals, especially Leonard, roared and roared. Yet when their keepers crouched down in front of the cages, Sandy, at least, quieted down. Leonard, most kingly of beasts, continued to deafen us as we listened to long-time Keeper Erica Calcagno relate the history, care and quirks of this feline couple.

Their night enclosure is a small concrete floored, metal barred, inside area, where the lions can be checked for general health or injuries. If treatment is necessary, the big cats are trained to work with the vets. Leonard will even offer his paw through the bars for x-rays, in exchange for a spray of goat's milk! Sandy and Leonard only spend the night in this enclosure, but it is far from ideal, even for such limited time. The Zoo is eager to expand the space, put in better lighting, and wider keeper areas to make it safer for the people who work here and less stressful for the animals. In November, Measure A-1 will be on the ballot for Alameda County residents. Voting Yes will create a stream of income, from a $1 surcharge on property tax, for Oakland Zoo improvements.

Lions are not the only rescued cats at the zoo. Down the hill, in a fantasy-like outdoor area with a waterfall, climbing platforms, shade trees and bushes, is the tiger exhibit divided into two parts. Four new tigers are gradually being introduced to long-time resident, Torako who was rescued from a circus. Turns out that being in the circus is not nearly as romantic as it sounds. Her cage was 2'x4'x7', barely long enough for her body, and just high enough to stand up. Pretty small for your average 320 pound tiger, measuring six and half feet long, plus tail. All her time was spent there, except when she was prodded into the ring to perform. Thankfully, her years at OZ have been much nicer.

Molly, Milou, Ginger and Grace... sounds like the chorus line from an old Hollywood film. But these are four tiger sisters rescued, in Texas, from the ravages of a human divorce. Now, a year after arriving in OZ, the sisters are cautiously acclimating to the new environment and their new family member, Torako. Ginger and Grace are all in, but Molly and Milou are still taking their time. Thus, they meet only through the wire fence that divides their enclosed space. Little steps for little feet, as my mother used to say.

Tigers too have a night enclosure. This facility is even more problematic than Sandy and Leonard's. The four steel-barred cages lie in sequence, so that in order to get in or out, Torako, Gracie and her sisters must move through each cage to get to the next. The tiger night area is in desperate need of renovation. A safer and less stressful cage transfer system is needed plus hot water and room for keepers to walk past the cages and prepare food, medicines, and treats for their wards.

The Oakland Zoo is a vital connection for animals and children. Saving endangered species, rescuing abused animals, and caring for local wounded wildlife, while enhancing children's educational programs is what OZ is all about. That means safe, well-maintained enclosures, fresh water and natural foods, quality healthcare, plus a science and nature curriculum for Alameda County through educational programs and school field trips. A "Yes" on A-1 will double the number of children served through these programs.

Vote Yes on Measure A-1, and say "Hi" to Leonard and Sandy as well as Torako and Molly, Milou, Ginger and Grace.

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