Sacramento Zoo animals are healthy, but some live in ‘jail-like’ enclosures, report says

The Sacramento Zoo’s animals are healthy, thanks to a dedicated staff and a commitment to conservation and species survival programs.

Many of its exhibits, however, are too small and outdated, with some animals living in enclosures that resemble jail cells, according to a report obtained Friday highlighting issues that could threaten the zoo’s accreditation in the future.

That March report, by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is what prompted the Land Park institution to consider leaving its longtime home and relocating to a larger location elsewhere in the city at a cost of $120 million to $150 million.

The zoo provided the AZA report to The Bee several days after the newspaper filed a Public Records Act request to view the document.

The AZA, which inspects institutions and oversees conservation efforts under the Species Survival Plan, spent three days at the Sacramento Zoo in November. Much of the feedback in its inspection report is positive, but losing AZA accreditation would be a serious blow to the zoo’s prestige and credibility.

Among other things, inspectors noted that the facility’s lion and tiger habitats were too small. They said a species of rare bird had no access to sunlight, and that the zoo’s enclosures for mongoose lemurs were outdated and failed to provide a “naturalistic habitat” for the animals.

“Many of the older exhibits at the zoo do not represent modern zoological practices,” the report says. All of those areas, it says, “require major renovation or replacement if they are to keep up with modern facilities and AZA standards.”

The confined spaces could hurt its ability to house and breed certain species under increasingly strict standards for animal care in the years to come.

The inspection occurred a few months after the zoo’s previous director, Kyle Burks, announced plans for a $75 million renovation of the facility that would include a new “biodiversity center” and an emphasis on smaller animals.

AZA's accreditation report on the Sacramento Zoo

After reading the AZA report, the zoo’s new director, Jason Jacobs, decided that relocation might make more sense. The zoo’s ability to expand beyond its landlocked 15 acres in the heart of Land Park is limited, he pointed out. He also said that zoo visitors have made it clear that they want to see bigger, “iconic” animals at the facility.

The project remains in the discussion stages, with no firm plans for location or funding. The city contracts with a nonprofit group to run the zoo. Any major changes would require city approval.

“We want to have a discussion with the public about how we stay relevant in the future,” Jacobs said Friday. So far, he said, feedback about a possible move has been “overwhelmingly” positive.

The AZA report generally lauded the zoo for its animal care, noting its alliance with the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Center and the skills of staff members.

Its animal collection is “unique, diverse and impressive for a zoo of its size,” inspectors wrote.

“The impression from the public perspective is overall positive, and most animal habitats demonstrate attention to the welfare of their residents and safe management.

“However, viewed though the lens of modern zoological facilities, philosophies and practices, much of the zoo needs renovating,” they said in the report.


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Inspectors wrote about the plight of the zoo’s variety of hornbill birds, which they said were displayed in metal cages shielded from sunlight that left the birds in “perpetual shade.”

Mongoose lemurs were being held in chain-link exhibits that appeared “jail-like,” they said.

Animals in the zoo’s interpretive center, including fulvous whistling ducks, eastern box turtles and blue-tongued skinks, were housed in enclosures “too small for the amount of time spent in them,” they observed.

Jacobs said the zoo began addressing the AZA’s concerns even before inspectors finished, and he said improvements are ongoing.

The facility no longer has tigers and is using their former exhibit space to expand its lion enclosure, he said. Bats have been transferred to other zoos so that the lemurs can have more room. Hornbills also have moved on to new cities.

If the zoo is able to relocate and expand, Jacobs said, it would no longer be faced with a choice between housing one species or another because of space concerns.

“What we were 30 years ago is nothing like what we are today,” he said, “and what we are today is not what we’ll be in another 30 years. That’s exciting.”

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