San Francisco Zoo: Nostalgic Animal Memories
Makes this a Howling Favorite
By Kathy Chin Leong
Carlos had it coming. That squirmy, silly little boy just had it coming when we arrived at the outdoor gorilla pen. My first grade classmate couldn't resist sticking his tongue out, plunging his fingers in his ears, and mocking the giant primates. The largest one glared at Carlos, turned his back, and hurled a baseball-sized glob of poop at Carlos' hair with the intensity of a 7th inning pitcher in the World Series. He screamed; we laughed until our bellies ached. That's my memory of the San Francisco Zoo in 1966, and I tell it with relish each time I come.
It had been awhile since I visited the gorillas here, and it was high time to say hello. To celebrate the end of summer, I came with my niece and nephews and daughter and sister to check out the redesigned zoo. Of course, it was redesigned perhaps a decade ago, but the old zoo with its outdated and dangerously low structures that animals could leap out of has been seared in my memory (along with the Carlos story).
Things are so different now. Parking used to be free, but now there's a parking lot in the new entrance at the bottom of the hill where you pay $8. You can park outside farther away for free, and that's what we did.
It used to be that you entered on a side street and walked into the playground with a giant locomotive. Now you walk into the widened giraffe and ostrich pen, and you can see the long necked creatures munching on suspended vegetation. You can see them close up enough to admire their handsome, large eyes.
This new and improved zoo is one that still brings back old memories. The penguin island is in the same place, and the zoo recently announced new penguins in the fold. The array of cats is still exciting to see: the Siberian tiger, the lions, the cheetahs. These always leave me awestruck with their fierceness and their beauty.
The old carousel remains in tact with a fresh paint job. The looping organ music tooting away as riders circle around and around made me think of my own rides as a child. It always seemed that the rides were too short, and I would have loved to stay on my horse all day long.
And the ever-present colorful flamingos seem to never age with their sticklike legs and identical shapes and features. I wonder if they get their offspring confused with others or if they even care about their offspring?
And, still in use are the famous San Francisco Zoo keys. These plastic keys, purchased time and time again because we lost them, are inserted into audio boxes that start talking about the animals each time you turn the key. In the 1960s, that was the extent of high tech gadgetry. Indeed, those keys were magical. I hope they still feel magical to the kids who go there today.
To me, one of the greatest joys of coming back was watching the reactions of my family, particularly my niece and two nephews who had never been to this zoo before. They were mesmerized by the tigers that would play and chase each other around. Over at the gorilla pen, we were separated from them with glass walls this time. Signs above told visitors to be quiet and not to tease the animals. Hmm...I guess Carlos became famous for his little act of his!
We did not have time to visit the Children's Zoo, nor the playground that looked revamped and very tempting. I hope the SF Zoo is here to stay, and I am so glad a new generation of animal lovers will have the opportunity to see favorites and learn about new ones. I don't know if Carlos ever comes to the zoo anymore, but at least he is safe from flying poop and other hurling objects. And maybe with a glint in his eye, he returns with his kids and grandkids tells them about the time he monkeyed around with the gorillas to his own peril! I wish I could be there to hear his version of the tale.
San Francisco Zoo
Sloat Blvd at the Great Highway
Tickets: $17 adults, 15-64; $14 seniors, $11 kids, 4-14; FREE 3 and under.
Parking $8 weekdays, $10 weekends and holidays
Open daily 10-5, 365 days a year
Born and raised in beloved San Francisco, Kathy Chin Leong longs for her childhood at the SF Zoo.