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Oakland Zoo’s PR campaign is faltering, still can save Knowland Park

By Karen Smith, Oakland Tribune My Word © 2014 Bay Area News Group

A recent news report about the successful move to preserve 362 acres of natural parkland in the East Bay hills could almost have been about Knowland Park.

The land is described as a collection of steep hillsides spilling down from the ridgeline, with a mix of bays, oaks and native grasses, streams, and abundant wildlife–mountain lions, coyote, deer, hawks, snakes and other creatures–taking advantage of the open-space corridor, along with 360-degree ridgetop views for human visitors.

But it is not in Oakland; it’s in Richmond. Continue Reading →

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A Zoo Board Meeting and the Definition of “Theme Park”

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): Continue Reading →

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Setting the Record Straight on the Oakland Zoo Expansion Plan

Public Comment by Laura Baker
East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society

Originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet

In last week’s Oakland Tribune (1/9/14) Joel Parrott called for unity to launch the Oakland Zoo’s disastrous expansion plan in Knowland Park, a plan reminiscent of many grandiose projects that appeal to a seductive illusion. Parrott lashed out at park proponents who aren’t buying that destroying park land to create an illusory experience is better than holding on to the real deal. The California Trails project would fence, grade, and destroy 56 acres of prime park land in an effort to transport visitors back in time to pre-1850 California and charge them for the experience. To sell the deal, zoo execs have resorted to using secrecy and truth-twisting to make some of the more problematic aspects of the project go away. Continue Reading →

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What Knowland Park Means to Me, by Heather Wood

HeatherWoodParkPhotoI’m not sure how I first learned about Knowland Park, and I can’t remember why I decided to go there.  Very likely it was a sunny afternoon and I was determined to get my whirlwind of a two- year-old out of my living room and “into nature” – somewhere spacious where he could run and I could think.

Oscar and I have only been to Knowland Park in the Oakland hills a few times; many days I’m just too toddlered-out to venture off the island of Alameda where we live.  But I’d take him there over the Oakland Zoo any day.

I don’t have any well-articulated arguments against zoos, nor the Oakland Zoo in particular (I’ve never even been there). One of my oldest friends is a zoo curator in another county, and I know for a fact that he genuinely cares about animals and their welfare.  He has dedicated his life to education and conservation of endangered species.  But a zoo – even a relatively humane one – is not where I want to teach Oscar his first lessons about animals.

When my husband was about three years old, his parents took him to a zoo in England.  He stared at a large bird of prey for a while – I think it was a bald eagle – and then started crying inconsolably.  When his parents asked him what was wrong, he said something like “I’m crying because that bird is in jail.”  Now, it is possible – even likely – that that eagle had been injured and was unable to live in the wild.  It may have had a good habitat by zoo standards, and may have had conscientious caregivers.  But my husband, as a toddler, couldn’t have appreciated those nuances.  All he saw was a beautiful creature with wings who was not allowed to fly.

At age 8, or 10, or so, maybe Oscar will be able to understand why people make zoos, how some confinement situations are better than others, and make up his own mind about whether to visit zoos for entertainment. But at two years old, all he knows about animals is what I show him.  I would rather his first experience be in his natural local environment, free from commercial influences, and with animals who are free to be who they are.

IMG_3087When we got to Knowland Park, the entertainment was not immediately visible.  At first glance, it’s just a wide open space with trees.  There are no lions, tigers, bears, no gift shop, no concession stand.  Oscar wasn’t quite sure what to do at first.  But then he started noticing things: a woodpile in front of a house bordering the park.  Pine cones and rocks on the ground.  Dogs loping through the grass.  And all the birds.  Brown birds, black birds, yellow-bellied birds, all chattering to each other in the high branches of an old oak tree.  Of course at the time, all Oscar could do was point and say “birdie,” (and the birds no doubt contemplated an early migration when they saw him barreling towards their tree).  But after a few trips back to Knowland Park, the Lake Merritt Gardens, and some of the East Bay Regional Parks, he doesn’t just say “birdie.” Sometimes he says “chickadee” and a few times he has said “brown towhee!”  The names don’t matter – I’m not trying to raise a champion birder or anything – but the noticing itself matters.  And it matters that he learns to see animals as their own creatures, with their own lives and reasons for being.  They are beautiful to hear and watch, but they aren’t on this Earth to entertain him.

One day we met a great-grandfather in front of his house that borders the Park, and I talked to him while Oscar played on his front lawn.  “I like the zoo, and I like the wild open space,” he said.  “I’ve given money to both of them.  We need both.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson is thought to have said “a man standing in his own field is unable to see it,” and I think that’s often true.  Every year, thousands of us pile into cars and drive miles and miles to see the great national parks.  Others of us donate money to environmental organizations, shaking our heads at the vanishing of America’s wild places.  Most of us would say that we want our children to value and protect Nature so that they do not repeat the mistakes of earlier, less ecologically sensitive generations.  We rage at the destruction of far away rain forests.  Meanwhile, we watch while unassuming places like Knowland Park get paved over for zoos and soccer fields, and we miss them only after they’re gone.

It only takes a minute’s reflection to see the absurdity here.  If earlier generations had fought harder for their Knowland Parks, people wouldn’t now have to flock to Yellowstone to see wild animals.  National environmental advocacy groups do good work, but if every American fought for the Knowland Park in his or her own town, we wouldn’t need all those advocacy groups.  And our children won’t value “Nature” as adults if their parents don’t stick up for the Knowland Park down the street.  It will be hard for them to care deeply about the destruction of the world’s resources when their own local resources were destroyed to provide more room for a zoo, and no one nearby seemed to care.

TheBabyI plan to take Oscar to some of the famous national parks one day, and I’m sure he’ll eventually go to a zoo.  But I don’t want him to think of “Nature” as an annual vacation destination or packaged activity for which you must always buy a ticket.  First I want him to know the trees in his own backyard and view animals as his neighbors.  A sense of intimacy and close interdependence with the Earth is what will teach him to respect it, and a place like Knowland Park can give him that.  But an out-of-the-way hilltop open space isn’t going to defend itself; it has no public relations team or corporate logo.  It only has us.  For my child and all the other children, I hope we fight for it.

Heather Wood

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“We shouldn’t have lied,” says zoo board member

Wow. Have you noticed how quiet things have gotten since the Measure A1 campaign? We have, and wondered whether it indicated some dissension within the zoo board ranks about how to proceed. The “anonymous” $1 million gift we heard they received seemed awfully convenient since they had just spent exactly that amount on a losing campaign. A way to reassure nervous donors, maybe?

Well, a zoo member who decided to attend the first zoo board meeting after the defeat of Measure A1 was interested to hear how the board responded after the defeat of a ballot measure on which so much money was spent. She contacted us later and told us that she was shocked to hear one of the zoo’s own board members calling out the untruth that characterized the whole campaign. According to this observer, the board member said (discussing zoo management’s denials that the money from the measure would fund the expansion):

“I don’t see why we didn’t acknowledge that this is about expansion. Of course it is. We shouldn’t have lied.”

Continue Reading →

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