Over the past three weeks, my mailbox has been inundated with glossy flyers and giant postcards exhorting me to vote YES on A1 for Animal Care, the 25-year parcel tax that would benefit the Oakland Zoo. One four-page flyer describes the pitiful state of the zoo’s infrastructure, including “plumbing and drainage systems [that] are over 40 years old” and “leaking reptile exhibits.” A second flyer exhorts me to “Help Our Animals & Kids” and features a handwritten message from Maya, age 10, who likes “going to the zoo” and pleads with me to “help take care of my friend Leonard.” It’s followed by a third flyer with a lovely photo of the majestic lion himself, detailing Leonard’s history of abuse before coming to the Oakland Zoo, and explaining the need for my tax money to buy him “milk & raw eggs.” A giant postcard arrives, with a cute lion cartoon assuring me that A1 will “provide animals with food & fresh water.” By the time the last postcard comes through the door, crying, “Leonard & Sandy Need You!” and reminding me that the money from A1 “Buys Lion treats,” I am wondering whether the folks from the Oakland Zoo inhabit an alternate universe. I can’t imagine how the Zoo could afford this expensive mail campaign when they are so financially strapped that they need a parcel tax to fund basics such as food, fresh water, and plumbing repair.
Poking around on the internet, the answers started to emerge. Zoo officials, it seems, have better things to do than to plan for the basics. An East Bay Express article describes a massive $72 million expansion planned by the zoo for which (according to a zoo executive) $40 million has already been raised. Of this, at least $19 million is from public funds, including $7 million from a state grant and $12 million from Oakland’s Measure G. They’re so confident of being able to raise the remaining $32 million that they refer to the expansion as a “done deal.” In interviews, they repeatedly reassure taxpayers that parcel tax money won’t be used to fund the expansion. My reading of the measure itself leaves me unconvinced, as it clearly states in section H that allowable projects include “constructing, expanding, remodeling,” and “…the construction of new or renovation of existing…facilities.” However, even if I take their word for it, their priorities perplex me. I learn that that the $72 million expansion project includes a gondola, campground, and a 34,000 square foot complex to house offices, a restaurant, gift shop, and visitor center. While the zoo can fund all of these facilities for the pleasure and entertainment of people, it turns to Alameda County property owners to pick up the tab for the basic functions of animal care and facility maintenance for the next 25 years. What would we think if a public school spent millions of dollars to build a roller coaster on the school playground and begged for a parcel tax to fund books and teachers? If this makes sense, then so does Measure A1.
So what’s the Oakland Zoo really up to, and what’s behind the staunch support they’re getting from the Oakland City Council and County Board of Supervisors? More poking around on the internet and I found that the answer, as so often is the case, is money. The zoo’s expansion, with its gondola, spectacular hilltop views, restaurant, and new “California-themed” exhibit, is supposed to draw tourists to the Oakland area. An Oakland North article by Ryan Phillips in July of 2011, quotes zoo director of strategic initiatives Nik Dehejia. “[The project] totally changes the face of the zoo, it changes the face of Oakland. It becomes an attraction because there isn’t anything else like this out there.” In the same month, NBC Bay Area reported that the new project was expected to bring $111 million into the Bay Area and also quoted Mr. Dehejia as pointing out that most people “don't understand our economic impact.” Being one of those who didn’t understand, I did the math. The parcel tax is estimated to bring in about $5.5 million dollars per year which (multiplied by 25 years) totals $137.5 million. So we’re spending $137.5 million plus $72 million (the cost of the expansion) for a total of $209.5 million---all to bring $111 million into the area. Yep, Mr. Dehejia, I think I’m finally starting to understand the economic impact.
Zoo officials are proud of their expansion plan, and love to wax eloquent about it. In the summer/fall 2011 edition of ROAR, the Oakland Zoo magazine, Executive Director Joel Parrott described part of this expansion plan, the California Trail. In his words: “The exhibit---created to tell the story of California’s wild life---will feature once-native animals, including the grizzly and the black bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, and bald eagle.” In the Oakland North article, Nik Dehejia described the gondola ride that will take people to the California Trail exhibit as “kind of taking you back in time to what California was.” Are top zoo officials really so grievously uninformed about our local wildlife? Of the five species named by Dr. Parrott, only the grizzly and the gray wolf are accurately described as “once-native.” (The bald eagle, for example, has six known nesting places in the Bay Area.) Of course, by paving over native wildlife habitat in Knowland Park to build a gift shop, office building, and restaurant, they can help speed the demise of the remaining three species to ensure that they, too, become “once-native.” Dr. Parrott justifies this by explaining to ROAR readers that “getting children interested in being in the outdoors often requires mediated experiences as a gateway. Our goal is to break down barriers to the outdoors and create environments that are a welcoming experience for all children, ” he writes. Strangely, my daughter didn’t seem to suffer from the unmediated quality of her experience when she saw a fledgling bald eagle at Lake Chabot. In fact, she was so excited that we could hardly keep her in the kayak. Perhaps what Dr. Parrot really means is that unmediated experiences, such as exploring Knowland Park with your friends and family, are free and won’t do anything to bring $111 million to the Bay Area. By replacing open, natural animal habitats with closed, controlled ones and providing them with amusement-park-like settings and themes, we can slap a hefty price tag on nature and claim that we’re contributing to the economy.
My husband, a public school teacher, has sadly watched younger colleagues, including several talented science teachers, being laid off in recent years. We’ve listened to the presidential candidates try to outdo one another in promises to hire badly needed science and math teachers. Imagine our surprise, then, to read that the zoo will solve all our problems. Measure A1, one of the glossy pamphlets promises, will “[P]rovide important science and nature education classes for children who often have none in the public schools.” With the critical need to educate more scientists and engineers, I’d have thought it would border on a regional emergency if “often” there are no science classes in our public schools. But now I’ve relaxed. No science class? No problem! We can just take the kids to visit Leonard the lion, resting assured that Measure A1 is paying for the Lion Treats.