We’ve all been charmed by photos and footage of the latest animal acquisition at the Oakland Zoo and other area zoos. Often these are baby animals, ramping up the “Awww” factor and stimulating us to think about taking the kids on an outing. This is one of the elements that keep people feeling warm and fuzzy about zoos in general: the warm and fuzzy animals that they use for their public relations campaigns. But—particularly with an institution like the Oakland Zoo, with its grand development plans—what that warm fuzzy photo covers over is the exploitation of captive animals at the expense of the wild ones.
Knowland Park (outside the existing Zoo) is home to an incredible variety of native animals as well as some non-natives that have moved into the area because of its diverse habitat. Park users have reported sightings of (or finding scat from) bobcat, coyote, grey and red fox, raccoon, skunk, mountain lion, deer, pocket gopher, mole, opossum, weasel, great horned owl, red-tailed hawk, sharpshinned hawk, kite, multiple types of lizards, snakes, and insects, butterflies, bats, frogs, songbirds, and—I learned not long ago—wood rats.
Wood rats make amazing nests of twigs and sticks in which they rear their young. But the homes, which sometimes reach several feet in height and width, are not only homes for wood rat families: other creatures move into them as well. They have been called the apartment houses of the wild, and they are wondrous creations. Like me, you may have passed by one or more of them many times on your hikes in the park, idly thinking that was just an unusually big heap of sticks over there off to the side of the trail.
There’s a wood rat nest right in the path of construction near where the Zoo’s proposed 3-story, 33,000 square foot interpretive center, gift shop, restaurant and office building is planned to go. The wood rats have not been consulted, nor has any environmental census ever documented how many creatures will be dislocated or killed when the bulldozers come. The wild wood rats are just as cute and interesting as any of the warm fuzzy captive animals featured in Zoo campaigns, but they have no PR staff putting out news releases about them. They are just living out their little wood rat lives as they have been doing for generations in Knowland Park.
So in the interest of evening up the cuteness score for the native residents of Knowland Park whose homes and existence are threatened by the Zoo’s theme park development plans, I went to You Tube and found this wonderful video of baby wood rats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2g9VKxX7vc&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PL2D405BE460FCC697
I’m not a naturalist and I’ve been told those in Knowland Park may be slightly different in coloring from those pictured here, but I am sure the wild Knowland Park wood rat babies squeak just as sweetly—perhaps they are even cuter. (See Laura Baker’s earlier post for more on Knowland’s wood rat nests: http://www.saveknowland.org/2012/01/22/the-rare-chaparral-plant-community-of-knowland-park/) And of course there are lots of other kinds of animal babies that live in Knowland Park.
The “animal rights” movement of the last few years has advanced discussions about what rights living creatures ought to have—for example, the right to not be abused or tortured. This has led zoos, including the Oakland Zoo, to re-think the ways in which captive animals are treated—including getting rid of small cages and keeping animals confined in larger enclosures. But is it perhaps time—particularly for an organization wanting to claim the “conservation” mantle—to consider that wild animals ought to have rights as well, even if they aren’t rare and endangered yet? If a place is already so heavily used by wild animals, should that not be part of the calculus as to its highest and best use–not only its potential uses for humans?
Wood rats—and all the other animal denizens of Knowland Park—can’t vote on the matter. Only humans get to have a say, through our actions or our lack of action. I’m standing with the baby wood rats, myself. Even if I never get to see one, I will be glad to know they are squeaking out there on the hill, cozy in their nest of twigs.
Ruth Malone is a resident of Oakland since 1983, a founding member and co-chair of Friends of Knowland Park and a longtime Oakland neighborhood activist. Since 2007, she has been working to educate and organize environmentalists, park users, and community members to protect the park. In her day job, she is a professor of nursing and health policy at University of California, San Francisco, where she helps students study the links between health and political, social and natural environments, and conducts research on the tobacco industry and its efforts to thwart public health efforts worldwide.
Ruth Malone’s Reflections Blog offers a combination of reflective essays and updates from the Protect Knowland Park Campaign, linking the fight to protect Knowland Park to broader environmental and ethical issues.