Oakland Zoo WTF, part 2

by zunguzungu

When I wrote this quick post, I thought I would quickly manage to get out to the Oakland Zoo to see the exhibit in question for myself. I didn’t; it’s tough to bike out there, and lacking a car, I still haven’t managed to do the kind of hard hitting investigative journalism that you pay for every time you renew your subscription to my blog. Also, let’s be honest, it was going to cut into my banjo playing and drinking time. And as an Appalachian, my culture teaches the importance of these activities to the exclusion of all else.

However, I did manage to write an email to the museum’s director, and got a remarkably prompt reply, which I’ve pasted below my original query. First, I wrote this:

Dr. Joel Parrott,
I haven’t been to see it yet, but a friend showed me a picture of the “East African Hut” in the Oakland Zoo, and after some scouting around on the internet, I was only able to find the press release description of
the exhibit at the zoo’s web site (http://www.oaklandzoo.org/news/press-releases/east-african-hut/). I’m curious about the rationale for putting a model of a house that people inhabit in a zoo, and I wonder if you could tell me anything about the decision-making that went into that. I’m genuinely not trying to accuse anyone of anything — really, I’m genuinely curious — but since a zoo is a place where human beings go to look at animals, it strikes me as very strange to put a house where human beings live into a zoo alongside all sorts of recreated animal habitats. Again, I’m not jumping to conclusions here; it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what rationale the zoo would have for doing this that I’m writing to you. Can you enlighten me or direct me to someone who can?
Best, Aaron Bady

Almost immediately, Joel Parrott wrote this in response:

Good morning Aaron.

The concepts for the entire area came out of a design process between the Oakland Zoo professional staff, Africans living in the local community,  and zoo architects that specialize in zoo design and interpretation. The general thinking behind this project was to recreate a sense of the experience of what it means to go to East Africa.  I have now been there nine times.  What is unmistakable, when I go to Africa, is that it is a total environment, and not just a collection of pieces.  A big problem with zoos, is that they tend to show animals, even those in naturalistic exhibits, separate from each other and separate from the rest of the world.

The intent here was to try to give a sense of unity in the East African experience.  First and foremost, the animals should be in natural exhibits, esp. with plants that are from their own ecology, or at least with plants that simulate their environment.  If we show the animals from Africa, then we should at least try to also include many of the plants (the botany) of their environment.  We are fortunate in Oakland to have a nearly identical climate (mediterranean) to South Africa, so that many of the native African plants can survive here.  The animals can also thrive and acclimate well.

As an extension of this, how should visitor services be depicted?  It would be extremely out of context to simply put the animals and plants in a zoo setting.  To give a sense of the culture and complete African setting, visitor services were cast in an educational cultural setting. In no way were the humans of Africa to be reflected as part of an animal exhibit manner.  Thus, the traditional architectural design of circular buildings, natural materials, etc. were incorporated.  We were very careful to be as accurate as possible, in order that the shared cultural experience would give our visitors an insight into the beauty of the outside world; in this case, the world where our African animals live, and people coexist.

I hope this helps.  Thanks for your note.

Joel Parrott