Rattling some cages

The Sac Zoo needs some more leg room.

The Sac Zoo needs some more leg room.

Last week the Sacramento Zoo unveiled its Conservation Carousel, a $500,000 merry-go-round featuring ridable critters like the polar bear, poison dart frog and giant dung beetle.

Bites wants to ride on the back of a dung beetle as much as any other full-grown adult, and the $2 ticket is no problem, because it’s a “conservation” carousel and the money is going to conserve something, right? Bites would presume wildlife, like polar bears, dart frogs and dung beetles.

Not so, says Monica Engebretson, with the Sacramento-based Born Free USA. “The zoo bills itself as a conservation organization. But it’s really just an entertainment venue,” she told Bites.

For example, in 2007, the zoo had a $4.5 million budget and gate revenue of more than $2 million. About half of the zoo’s budget went to caring for the current occupants, about 10 percent to “education,” and the rest to administration, marketing and visitor services. But last year the zoo only spent $14,000 directly on wildlife-conservation programs.

The zoo’s executive director, Mary Healy, argues that “the checks are just a portion of what we do for conservation.” When people see animals, they care about animals, Healy explains.

Right now in Bites’ wallet is a Zoo membership card marked “Family pack.” That membership has paid for itself many times over this year, and provided a space for Bites’ own progeny, Nibbles and Bits, to blow off some steam (and to pick up a few manners from the ring-tailed lemurs).

Sure, Bites’ beasties love the zoo, but does that mean they’ve picked up a lifelong love and respect for nature? It hasn’t stopped Nibbles from riding the dog.

A while back, Born Free’s vice president, Adam Roberts, panned our little zoo on his blog: “It’s not educational to watch a hyena pace back and forth endlessly. It’s not educational to watch birds who can’t fly because of the restrictive roof over their heads.” And while some of the critter enclosures are cramped, Roberts griped that there was “plenty of room for human visitors eating and stretching and relaxing and spending.”

“I think certain animal extremists have taken their positions. I can’t change their minds,” Healy says in response to criticism from Born Free, which, as the name suggests, is pretty anti-zoo. “Our half-million visitors a year have voted with their dollars.”

Maybe so, but attitudes change, and zoos change with them.

The city of Sacramento is about to spend $90,000 on a study of the feasibility of moving the Sacramento Zoo from its landlocked 14-acre parcel in Land Park to some more expansive, and expandable, digs in Sutter’s Landing, a to-be-developed regional park near 28th and C streets.

Sacramento’s zoo is among the smallest 10 percent of accredited zoos in the nation. Healy said she hopes that at least 100 acres will be set aside at the new location—if a move pencils out. That’s about the same size as the zoos in San Diego and San Francisco. (Even Oakland, a city smaller in population than Sacramento, boasts a zoo that is 45 acres and growing.)

But Healy said the zoo wouldn’t be ready to move for another 20 years. That’s a lot of lead time to design a first-rate facility, and also to wrestle with issues like the humaneness and conservation value of future zoos.

Twenty years is a long time. Zoos might or might not be around by then, but they’ll certainly be changed. Today’s “animal-rights extremists” may be tomorrow’s city council members. “Maybe there’s a middle ground somewhere,” Engebretson said of the Sacramento zoo’s plans for the future. “We’d like to steer them toward a more modern outlook on how to treat wildlife.”