May/June 2022 Issue
Tucked amid oak-dotted hills, with a bird’s eye view of the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Zoo isn’t the largest in the United States. It isn’t the oldest, either. But 100 years on, it’s become a nationally renowned gem for visiting animal lovers and conservationists around the world, as well as a point of pride for locals.
The zoo is in the spotlight this summer, as it celebrates its centennial anniversary. Whether you’re planning a Bay Area getaway or your road trip takes you through the area, it is worth a visit.
Of course, the Oakland Zoo of 2022 is much different from that of 1922, when Henry A. Snow, a recognized naturalist and big game hunter, established a museum in downtown Oakland to showcase his collection. Some species were alive (including monkeys, snakes, and lions), but many were stuffed and mounted. The animals were quite the spectacle—an old newspaper photo shows a sun bear swimming in nearby Lake Merritt—and after nuisance complaints, they were moved to caged enclosures in a park, then eventually to the site of the zoo today.
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing for 20 years or so, the zoo really came into its own, with construction of many new and enlarged habitats and steadily growing attendance. But by the 1980s, it was low on funds with aging facilities and animal care that was falling behind the times. A particularly low point came in 1983, when the Humane Society of the United States named Oakland Zoo among the country’s worst, calling it a “random collection of animals” and a “concrete oasis.”
Fortunately, with fresh leadership and a renewed commitment to animal welfare, change was quick and sustained, especially with the arrival of Dr. Joel Parrott, a veterinarian. By 1988, the Oakland Zoo received accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and soon became nationally renowned for its groundbreaking approach to animal management, beginning with the zoo’s elephants. In 1989, the zoo also received much national praise for creating the natural habitat elephant habitat exhibit, “Mahali Pa Tembo,” and eventually expanded from one to 6.5 acres.