For fifteen years I believed unquestioningly the received wisdom that San Francisco Zoo was to be avoided at all costs. Underfunded, rundown and more concerned about entertaining its dwindling number of human visitors than caring for its residents, the its reputation had plunged to an all-time low. And then, on Christmas Day 2007, a member of the public was savaged to death by an escaped tiger, the same animal that had bitten a keeper just twelve months before. Among locals, confessing to liking it became nearly as criminal an act as admitting to paying a visit to Pier 39. And it was too far removed from the tourist bus trail to lure outsiders to its Ocean Beach location.
But today, on reading that the zoo was making a comeback, we set aside any such prejudice and took the combined J and L Muni lines to Sloat and 47th to join the young families and school parties that appeared, understandably, to represent the main customer base.
The first thing that strikes you is the beautifully lush setting. And there has, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of work being done in recent years to rebrand and remodel the Zoo around different habitats and focusing on conservation. As someone who has two world class wildlife parks on his doorstep – the John Aspinall Foundation zoos at Howlett’s and Port Lympne in Kent in England – I wish them well and applaud the passion that was evident in the friendly, welcoming staff.
To recommend a zoo as the perfect place to take the kids is like proposing that an aquarium is the best spot to encounter tropical fish. But the children’s zoo here is a delight. It is a spacious and clean where the children are encouraged to learn about, and engage physically, with the inhabitants, all of whom are only too willing to be petted – and fed. A steam train that picks up a thrilling speed on its short route and an indoor carousel provide added excitement.
Photographed below are just a few of the adorable characters that live at the Zoo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many animals actually out on display, particularly in the afternoon, than I did on our visit. Generally, they are taking a siesta or just merely playing hard to get. Some, for example the snow leopard and beaver, made themselves unavailable, but the vast majority were clearly visible and untroubled, even stimulated, by the interest shown in them by the public.
Now Singapore it is not. Nor Toronto. Nor even San Diego.
But it is a zoo that is trying hard to heal a reputation that had been seriously harmed in a market where the alternative “big beasts” like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, hold all the aces. And it is doing so in the right way by concentrating on conservation.
TripAdvisor places it 87th out of 520 attractions in San Francisco which, on my limited mathematical analysis, means it is in the top sixteen percent, which, in one sense, is not too shabby. But a city zoo, especially one in such a lovely setting, should be doing better. It deserves greater support from prospective benefactors, San Francisco residents and out of town visitors alike.
And yes, we did see both the baby sumatran tiger and giraffe!