Seattle's changing values as seen through the zoo

As the city and its world famous Woodland Park Zoo keep going green, tensions emerge between our politics and our practices.
Crosscut archive image.

A Woodland Park Zoo lion in winter. (Chuck Taylor)

As the city and its world famous Woodland Park Zoo keep going green, tensions emerge between our politics and our practices.

Seattle has several places where its character has been defined and its national reputation secured. Anyone's list would include the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Center, and the central waterfront. Let me add what may be a surprise entry: Woodland Park, where for almost a century the zoo and the city have shaped each other's sense of identity. The zoo is back in the news because of a dispute over a proposed garage that has roiled the nearby Phinney Ridge community. But those who think this debate is simply about a garage are missing powerful trends in city politics. Hardly anyone would dispute that our zoo is one of the best in the nation, not just a showcase for visiting relatives but a genuine and enduring delight for kids and adults. It didn't happen by accident. There have been moments where the zoo's future was thrown into the hands of voters or political leaders. Another test comes later this year. Support for the zoo undoubtedly has been affected by the dispute involving a four-level, 700-car garage planned for Phinney Avenue North along the zoo's west side. Zoo management wants the garage as part of plans to better care for animals, add new displays, and bring in money. A highly organized group, mainly from Phinney Ridge, is pressuring the Seattle City Council to alter the project. The opposition pushes many of the familiar neighborhood arguments about big development (it's too big and ugly and it would generate too much traffic). On the other side is the politically powerful Woodland Park Zoo Society, years of agreements shifting the zoo to nonprofit control but maintaining city ownership, and city leadership that would prefer that the problem just go away, especially during a council election year. The contours of the garage debate has been well reported by Crosscut's Paul Andrews. But the issue also scales to a larger point about how our Green city of recyclers, bicyclers, and tree huggers increasingly treats development. To put this in context, Woodland Park began as the spoils of old-style environmentalism – the extraction kind that looked at trees as dollars to be harvested. The place we know as Woodland Park began as a clearcut bought in 1887 by mill owner Guy Phinney, who built an English-style estate complete with an animal menagerie. Twelve years later, Seattle was engulfed by a bitter debate over a proposal to buy the acreage for $100,000 – a bargain in retrospect but, to critics then, a spectacular waste of public money for an oversized public park. The purchase went forward when the council overturned a mayoral veto, but Seattle took an environmental step backward in 1932 when Aurora Avenue North cut the park in half. Care for the animals pretty much followed the standards of the day – slabs of concrete fronted by metal grills, which gave kids sufficient proximity to exchange widened eyes and bared teeth with the wild things. That approach prevailed for decades, including my own visits as a child in the 1960s. For the J.P. Patches generation, the big star inside the boxes was a gorilla named Bobo and his forlorn female companion, Fifi. Hardly anyone thought much about the animals. They were simply attractions, along with the pony rides, the cotton candy, and the miniature train, which got a scene in the 1974 political thriller Parallax View, starring Warren Beatty. (Conflict-of-interest alert: One summer I worked at the zoo, running the Rock-O-Plane for $1.10 an hour.) David Hancocks' arrival as executive director in 1976 changed everything, including the policy of free admission. About the time some of us were buying Earth Shoes, Hancocks preached a new ethic of conservation and animal displays in a faux natural setting. Out went the train, the pony ride, the merry-go-round, the concrete, and the steel mesh. In came landscaping suitable to the animals' habitat and safety barriers disguised as natural landscape. If kids had trouble seeing zebras through all that foliage, well, that's nature. Nobody minded too much because the overall result gave the spectator a great sense of discovery and excitement. Our once sleepy zoo, as indolent a presence as a yawning lion, become an increasingly vital force in our civic conversation. It was showing up in editorials. It was asking us to re-think how we as a species related to the rest of nature. Hancocks convinced Seattle to think differently about zoos, but he failed to settle the issue of long-term zoo finances, especially its relationship to city government. Frustrated over the slow pace of improvements, he quit in 1983. A Pro Parks levy in 2000 provided some help, a subsidy for zoo operations for eight years. With the levy about to expire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels did not favor renewal, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Last month, King County Executive Ron Sims came to the rescue with a proposal for a new regional levy that would provide $21 million to the zoo. County voters decide in August. With the zoo back in the news recently, I realized I hadn't been there for years. On a visit last week (admission: $10.50), I was amazed at the changes, almost all of for the better. I enjoyed seeing the snakes, monkeys, penguins, tapirs, elephants, and bats hanging inside the spooky nocturnal house. I watched a jaguar pass just inches away, on the other side of glass. (Those were kids shrieking, not me.) I also noticed that the zoo's environmental message is getting more and more explicit, shifting from mere education to advocacy. At the end of the tropical bird exhibit, for example, you walk by a large display that urges you to buy "shade grown" products to preserve habitat. The advocacy, of course, is persuasive, and it's one more example of how environmental messages are embedded in nearly everything, from the Oscars to our choice in toilet cleaner. A trip to Whole Foods is as much about saving the planet as picking up soy milk for the Nature Valley cereal. In Seattle, the phrase "all politics is local" has been replaced by "all politics is environmental." Our energy companies go green. Our buses go biodiesel. Our art museum restores a beach. Sims and Nickels fight global warming and compete for recognition as the Jolly Green Giant. (Nickels is ahead, as measured by national magazine photos.) Our zoo rightfully places itself at the center of the agenda. But you can't help but puzzle over its exhortation to restore nature while its creatures are imprisoned. I'm not about to condemn zoos because the best, such as our own, teach us something wonderful about animals and connect us with efforts to preserve both habitat and species. You just have to wonder about the practice of holding amplified concerts on grounds not that far from the nocturnal house. Or talking about nature and staying green while also building an enormous garage for carbon-burning cars. Our politics condemn the automobile and promote policies to "get people out of their cars" at a pace where the mandate gets ahead of practical choice. Personally, I'm sympathetic to parents who say they need a minivan when they have to haul kids, diapers, and strollers. Maybe it's not a contradiction, just tension between values. The zoo has become a great institution for building our city's environmental ethic, but it is not in every respect a means for acting on it. Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the Woodland Park Zoo is privately owned. The zoo actually is owned by the City of Seattle but managed by a nonprofit organization. This story was revised accordingly.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.