San Francisco Zoo retains psychologist to improve animal wellness

S.F. Examiner File PhotoHousing crisis: The San Francisco Zoo’s 1930s-era enclosures pose some challenges for officials and animals alike.

Few local tragedies resonated so widely as the deadly tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day 2007. But that horrific incident appears to have sparked a new push for updated infrastructure and other methods to increase “psychological wellness” among The City’s captive creatures.

The zoo has recently solicited the help of trained psychologist and former Atlanta Zoo director Terry Maple — a real-life Dr. Doolittle of sorts — although he isn’t so sure that’s the nickname he wants.

“I would like to be Dr. Do-A-Lot,” Maple said.

Given the zoo’s variety of animals — many living in 1930s-era enclosures — Maple has his work cut out for him. He said the zoo has started on the right track with at least one simple principle.

“Animals are really better off if they work for their food,” Maple said. “If you just throw it to them, you’re creating a dependent couch potato.”

Tigers should have their meat hidden so they can track it down, and polar bears could find their meals frozen in a block of ice, for example. Grizzly bears currently get a daily fish feeding in which they have to snatch their prey out of the water, something Maple said is “what every bear exhibit should look like.” One of the zoo’s anteaters is showing irregularity because he wants to dig, so more dirt might be in order for his habitat, Maple said.

Animal whispering also is not something to be scoffed at, Maple believes.

“That’s not a crazy idea,” Maple said. “I’ll bet most of the keepers have a certain ability to communicate with the animals they take care of.”

Maple plans to join other zoo officials tonight at The City’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare to discuss a variety of new ideas for the zoo. Commissioner Sally Stephens said the tiger attack, although terrible, spurred a new tone of cooperation between animal advocates and the zoo.

“Having the zoo administration behind these ideas is 75 percent of the way there,” Stephens said. “If people could be more convinced that the animals are as happy as they can be in their circumstances at the zoo, they’d be more willing to contribute money.”

Still, animal-rights activist groups like PETA remain staunchly opposed to the very idea of zoos and attribute animal unhappiness to their captive state.

“What we see at zoos is animal well-being sacrificed just so they can breed more animals to exhibit,” said Ashley Byrne, PETA’s manager of campaigns.

Even so, Byrne acknowledged that her group works with the Detroit Zoo’s “welfare center” on behalf of animals.
“Zoos really are animal prisons,” Byrne said, “but to be practical, there are so many animals living in zoos that it’s important to understand more about their psychology and the impact of their captivity.”

Stephens said while zoos could always use improvement, they do serve an important purpose.

“You look into the eyes of a gorilla, and it’s kind of a profound feeling that comes over you. You don’t get that stuff when you just watch on Animal Planet,” Stephens said. “So these animals perform a service to their species to allow people to connect with them and really care about what happens to them in the wild.”

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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