Skip to Content
Everything Else

Think About The OKC Zoo

9:17 AM EST on February 19, 2015

oklahoam city zoo

It terms of the weather, it was a gorgeous, wonderful Valentine’s Day in the Oklahoma City area Saturday. Did it get into the 80s? Surreal. It was one of those days you think that, if only, if only, Oklahoma was like this, say 25 percent of the time, the livin’ would be easy.

One of these mornin's you gonna rise up singin'You gonna spread your little wings and you'll take to the skyBut 'till that mornin' there ain't nothin' gonna harm youWith your mama and daddy standin' by—Summertime lyrics by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald

So I took my Valentine Dr. Jasmine Mulliken to the Oklahoma City Zoo, which was overflowing with people, primarily families, with lots and lots of young children in strollers, little wagons and all sort of other rolling contraptions that have apparently been invented since I had to cart my children around. I mean “lots” and “lots.” Let me state this, which was clearly based on the numerical evidence I witnessed Saturday: I think Homo sapiens are going to exist for a long time.

Ah, yes, but what about the critters? The elephants, the giraffes, the sea lions, the wild African dogs, the okapi, the gorillas, the chimpanzees, the cheetahs, the regal lion staring down at the human spectacle from his perch on top of a manmade rock formation created for his benefit by God-fearing Oklahomans?

The antics of the new baby elephant, Achara, really, brought tears to our eyes. What a pretty, pretty angel.

So I’m going to intensely qualify this next sentence, but I’m going to say it: The Oklahoma City Zoo has declined in quality over the years, and it’s a depressing place that imprisons animals for the arrogant whims of humans who have lost touch with the natural world and are slowly and surely destroying the planet.

The “zoo” debate is nothing new. Should we capture wild animals against their will and imprison them and make them mate in cages for our weekend entertainment? It’s been going on for centuries. It’s certainly not an Oklahoma thing.

Or does presenting these majestic and well-fed animals as theater allow us to appreciate the natural world and help us better understand ourselves as part of something larger than the latest television show about zombies or vampires?

I leave that debate to you. I’m against zoos yet I paid to go inside one of them Saturday. I want to hug Achara, but the bat-eared foxes needed more space to roam. Can I get one free beer for conceding contradiction and ambiguity? Not in this place. As Joni Mitchell put it, “We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden. Caught in the devil’s bargain.”

Here’s the point I want to make in yet another meandering post that’s too “wordy”: The Oklahoma City Zoo needs to up its game. Fast. Right now. The top zoo and city leaders are absolutely to blame, certainly not the dedicated staff caring for the animals, all/most of whom work there for compassionate purposes.

So before I go on to my criticism, I shall issue some qualifications. The zoo got slammed with people on a February day because of the unusual wonderful weather. The parking lots were full. The lines to get into the zoo were long. Several times, I got claustrophobic trying to look at some bored chimps or a giraffe looking down on me like the tyrant human I am because there were so many people, mostly kids, and I have something absolutely wonderful to say about all the kids and their parents later in this post.

But the zoo management surely follows the weather situation. They know that nice weather is going to draw people, especially in a winter month. Yet they decided to stay with their protocols by making people wait in long lines. Why not, at some point, just start waving people in for free and asking them to pay on their way out on their honor or simply hand them a zoo/self-addressed pay envelope? Why not bring in food trucks, give away water for free and have the train rolling around the tracks? Why not stay open for just one more extra hour?

In other words, take advantage of the situation. Have fun. Loosen up. Be real. Sheesh. This place is so uptight to me sometimes, I feel like I’m suffocating. We are robots. We are machine parts. Caught in the devil’s bargain.

But that’s the least of my complaints. The uppity ups around these parts will dismiss that with their usual disdain for anyone who dares to challenge their mediocre systems and rigid traditions. See, I just don’t get it. I get it that the bigwigs think I don’t get it. It’s been the story of my entire adult life here in this place.

My main complaint is that the animals don’t have enough room and the enclosures were not even close to pristine, and maybe that’s just more apparent on a February day than, say, on May 25. If we have zoos, then the animals need room to roam and everything needs to be PRISTINE. If we’re going to imprison animals for some larger purpose related to the human condition and intellectual insight, then we are morally obligated to do it right. What I saw Saturday was not right. It made me cry in a different way than I did for Achara, the pretty angel. It was a very very sad cry. Should zoos make a person cry in a sad way?

Four chimps in a room that’s not as big as the room in which I am right now wrapped in a blanket as I write this so extremely important post? Four foxes in a small area not as big as my front yard right next to a loud, busy Oklahoma City street? A lonely sea lion in a filthy dirty small enclosure? I could go on. I don’t want to depress myself anymore by doing the list and quantifying it all.

So here’s what redeemed it all. The kids. So many kids. Laughing, crying, throwing fits, saying kid things. “That one looks creepy.” “Look, Mom, a lion. Why is he yawning?” “Who shaves his whiskers?” A mother telling a distraught two-year-old, “We can stand here all day if that’s what you want.” A dad making his children clap and cheer for the animals, and we all joined in the chant! A grandfather-like man telling whom I presumed was his daughter, “Oh, we still have time. Let the kids go over there, Susan.” Away the kids ran. A dad telling his eight-year-old or so daughter that she, yes, can go into an animal building on her very very own, but then following her in a secret way so that she can’t see him. A woman with a small child on her shoulders as she also pushes a stroller. What energy! Life! What a beautiful day! Life! This. Life! “What a lark!”

My larger point here is that I witnessed some solid parenting of children in various states of joy or distress.

Think about a zoo. Are we all in our own zoos in one way or another, in our enclosures as people look on and judge us or feed us or don’t feed us, trapped in spaces we’ve been put in by our circumstances? Are we really free to roam, to follow dreams, to do what we really want to do, to say what we want? Do zoos say more about us than the animals we pretend to adore as we ruin our rainforests and burn the planet to death?

Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and publishes the Okie Funk blog. He lives and works in enclosures.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter