Zoo Board Meeting
We are continuing our activism on behalf of beloved Knowland Park. Last month, a delegation of Park supporters attended the zoo’s board meeting, where Laura Baker of CNPS read the following in a 10-minute public comment period (extended from the original 3 minutes the board allowed):
My name is Laura Baker and I’m a conservationist with the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. As a state organization, we’re concerned about the impacts of this project to two statewide rare plant communities that lie within the expansion project area. Nothing in any of the mitigations suggested thus far offers any assurance that these plant communities and the other species that accompany them will be adequately protected from damage and destruction. But you’ve heard all that from our comment letters, our public comment at City Council, in our conversations across the table from you during mediation, in the courtroom, and in all the media. And we can see that you remain unimpressed.
I’ve been a Board member on non-profits myself, and I have asked myself what would impress me enough to worry about a present course of action that the organization for which I am responsible and accountable is taking. With all due respect, here are some of them:
1. That we are in daily violation of our Management Agreement, the chief contract with the City that allows us to accept millions of dollars in public funding for operating the zoo and stewarding Knowland Park.
2. That we are borrowing large sums of money to build a project that has never been publicly vetted for its funding capacity.
3. That we are robbing Peter to pay Paul–that is taking from operations to pay for capital costs.
4. That we lost a major public funding ballot measure after pouring a million dollars into the A1campaign.
5. That we provided significantly incorrect figures to State Parks about our ability to complete and operate this project in order to win a multi-million grant that would help pay for the project.
6. That public opinion has grown increasingly opposed to this project as word of it spreads.
7. That the project is being sold as a conservation project but has not been publicly endorsed by a single conservation organization in the East Bay community. And that’s before the bulldozers have begun to tear up a beloved park.
The yellow light of caution is flashing because there is much more at stake than whether this project gets built. Perhaps all of you Board members are in sync on greenlighting this project, perhaps not. If any of you have any doubts, now is the time to press hard on the project drivers for answers. Pump the brakes. You don’t have to be nor should you be just a passenger. You have power to be more than just a follower in this costly endeavor. Once you’ve run the red light, it’s too late for regrets.
The zoo board has also announced that it is taking out a $10 million “bridge loan” for capital projects, although no information about the nature of this loan has been revealed. We don’t know who loaned the money, what terms it was loaned under, or what it was “bridging.” Yet this is a board proposing to permanently destroy wildlife habitat in a public park with large amounts of public funding. Why can’t the public find out more about the financing?
Is it a “theme park”?
We’ve heard through neighborhood grapevines that some people have taken offense at the term “zoo theme park” that many Knowland Park defenders use to describe the expansion.
How are we justified in calling the zoo’s expansion plan for Knowland Park a “theme park”?
A “theme park” is a leisure attraction or amusement park that includes a collection of displays, activities, etc, based on a central theme.
The central theme for the zoo’s development project in Knowland Park is “native California”; it includes:
- Man-made exhibits and live captive animals displayed in enclosures to “re-create” California “as it used to be”
- Aerial gondola ride up to the site, taking visitors over what is now (but will not be then) thriving California native habitat with real native California wildlife that will be fenced out and acres destroyed to create it.
- High-end restaurant
- “Children’s Activity Zone”
- “Interpretive and Visitor Centers” with man-made exhibits, offices, and other features totaling tens of thousands of square feet, connected by paved walkways
- Dozens of other structures
- 100-person overnight camping facility
The zoo is an entertainment enterprise: It has characterized itself as such, and is classified as “Entertainment” (not “Education”) by at least one of its major corporate donors. It already has multiple rides, concession stands, and day and evening activities, all offered to patrons at a price. The California Trail project fits solidly within that focus.
A theme park is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem with this one is that it will be built at the expense of the authentic native California habitat and wildlife that must be destroyed to create it. And it is being sold to the public as a “conservation education” project. The fake California-as-it-was exhibits that will replace real existing native California will provide a fundamentally inauthentic and dishonest conservation educational experience, using an outdated concept of how to provide it.
Modern zoos that walk the conservation talk don’t choose to build on wildlife habitat. They don’t need to obtain kill permits so that they can proceed to bulldoze in areas where threatened species live. They don’t envision conservation education as taking place within 34,000 square foot ridgetop buildings. Rather, for much less cost, they plan and carry out experiential programs where children and families explore the real thing—real wild California, in this case. We still have a chance to help the zoo understand that this project isn’t the way to go. Think of what incredible programs the zoo could run for the money they will spend on this boondoggle! Conservation organizations would flock to help them and the people of Oakland could have one of the most innovative and exceptional conservation programs in the world—as well as preserving an amazing urban-interfaced wildland– if zoo management would only let go of these horribly outdated plans.