Friday, April 21, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

They don’t call it a zoo for nothing.

The San Diego Zoo’s parking lot is all sunblock, strollers and SUVs, a sea of different flavors of people: fair-skinned Midwestern families; hipster Hillcrest couples, visiting high school cliques and toddlers aplenty.

Even on a sunny spring weekday, the hordes will spar for a spot at the back of the lot. Get inside, and the density of fanny-packed and water-bottled visitors – not just at the popular locales, but anywhere a child could gawk – makes one think the rest of the world must be really starved for good animals.

They come to San Diego’s greatest cultural asset – Balboa Park – to see one of the leading zoological institutions in the world, 100 acres of consistently intoxicating animal and plant life. Parents are necessary for transportation and funding, but it’s the kids who seem to enjoy the place most. Watching packs of little rascals burst with excitement (“I see the monkey!”) and lightheartedly talk, through the glass, in front of a crowd, to an orangutan that’s 20 feet above their heads shows the gravity of their experience, and makes us (semi-) adults a little sad for the days when we didn’t have to contend with public inhibition. (I would talk to the ape too, if there weren’t so many people around.)

On the surface, nothing about the zoo experience and the huge, diverse crowd it draws seems unusual. It’s one of the world’s greatest zoos, in a city with some of the world’s greatest weather. Of course lots of people are going to go there.

But visiting the San Diego Zoo is a conviction-building encounter, or at least it was designed to be. You show up with expectations of seeing a gorilla and maybe an elephant and hopefully a hippopotamus, and you leave not only with face-to-face memories of those and thousands of other animals, but (hopefully) a sense of urgency about the state of the natural world and man’s proper role in it.

The place sporadically confronts visitors with sobering lessons about the urgent need for protecting the planet. Quotes near exhibits from conservationists impart the importance of saving endangered species and habitats now – “We will only get one chance.”

Display signs explain in detail political and social situations that are causing environmental disasters, like the bushmeat crisis in Africa, offering a few specific tips on how any individual can help the situation. Biome-specific exhibits give the visitor a sense for the interrelationship between animals and their habitat, and (hopefully) the necessity of preserving both.

In addition to educating visitors, the Zoo runs an entire research division dedicated to conservation. It employs scientists from all over the world to study animals all over the world, and brings the lessons back to dazzle vacationing moms and pops.

But while its messages blend well into the gorgeous setting, subtly reminding viewers of the real-world consequences of holding the natural world in such high regard, we can’t forget how progressive – and at the same time, successful – the Zoo is. Not only has it made San Diego a world-class tourist destination for something besides the beach, it manages to do something few other cultural institutions today can: bring countless people of utterly different backgrounds, values and political beliefs together to celebrate and learn about one worthy cause.

Actual environmentalism (as opposed to feel-good rhetoric) is a political uphill slog these days, and while the zoo never gets explicit, the issue-specific conclusions of its encounters require only a few mental steps.

Should disappearing local marshes be developed or preserved? Should California create incentives to get more people and businesses using solar power? Should the United States be doing everything it can to end our dependence on fossil fuels?

Yes.

Should we ever consider drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Preserve? Should we let automakers build horrendously inefficient cars and trucks if they want to? Should we unlock our national forests to logging companies?

No.

Which gets me thinking: The zoo makes a valiant success of understanding and preserving wildlife, but maybe it’s time to turn up the volume a little. I’m not talking soapboxes or PETA-style theatrics, but maybe visitors should get more of an overarching sense of how human society has dealt with the natural world, and the strategies that have been most beneficial to both humans and other species. Why not impart a conservationist’s perspective on the challenges of environmental policymaking facing politicians and voters today?

The place has a unique opportunity. Granola-munching enviro-dorks have a way of frightening off serious attention to the causes they’ve been known to overstate (or at least the noisy, crazy ones get more than their share of attention.) The zoo thrills patrons from all backgrounds with an up-close view of nature – for most, the closest they will ever get to an Angolan Colobus or a Thomson’s gazelle. It should encourage them to complete the circle of their experience.

The zoo’s best visitors – children – should also be its foremost consideration. Protecting the environment isn’t merely keeping obscure species alive for study; it’s shaping human interaction with the natural world in a way that will keep future generations noisily enjoying a planet they necessarily inherit.

The place already subtly advocates for environmental protection. But as the world demand for oil climbs, and the global warming situation grows more disconcerting, maybe our temple of zoology should do more to explain to its patrons the need for social change. Environmentalism is a specter beyond the scale of partisan politics – and no local organization is in a better position to publicly make that case than the San Diego Zoo.

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at

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