Sacramento has real problems to solve. A new $150 million zoo is not one of them

What the Sacramento Zoo expansion could look like

Take a look at some of the exhibits and layout of a proposed Sacramento Zoo expansion and relocation.
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Take a look at some of the exhibits and layout of a proposed Sacramento Zoo expansion and relocation.

Sacramento has always struggled with identity. Being a neighbor to San Francisco doesn’t help, and having Los Angeles right down the road isn’t useful either. Well-meaning civic boosters often dream up big ideas to compete with both of these cultural behemoth metro areas, and now some people want to replace the small but arguably quaint Sacramento Zoo located in Land Park.

Located on 14.3 acres, the Sacramento Zoo isn’t able to host larger animals such as hippos, elephants and baboons. With 500,000 visitors annually, the non-profit Sacramento Zoo does just fine on its own, the parking notwithstanding, which can indeed be a challenge.

True, it is not remotely competitive with major zoos. Then again, it doesn’t need to be. The original plan was to renovate the zoo for $75 million. That’s a lot of hippopotamus chow. Now the city council is hiring a consultant ($150,000, if you’re playing at home) to review a dozen possible sites to locate a new zoo.

But where? Tear up Bing Maloney golf course? Take out the Sacramento Executive Airport immediately adjacent? Level Haggin Oaks Golf Course? Sutter’s Landing Park, perhaps? Or maybe site it in Natomas, where it has a vocal political supporter in Councilwoman Angelique Ashby?

The question — and the $150,000 consulting contract — is completely unnecessary. That’s because a new zoo is an absolute waste of time and civic energy that would be better spent in a hundred other different ways that Sacramento really needs.

With a projected price tag of up to $150 million (not a typo), a new Sacramento Zoo would be a financial white elephant of a project.

“It will take a public commitment to make this happen,” said Elizabeth Stallard, president of the zoo’s board of trustees. This usually means taxes, surcharges and land donations. Last year, Mayor Darrell Steinberg even suggested using Measure U funds for the zoo.

The new zoo director, Jason Jacobs, asserts that our current zoo could possibly lose its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and we wouldn’t get to have larger species. Maybe, but in this budget environment, aren’t there even larger species that need help — like homeless humans on the street?

Let’s examine the premise of zoos, for starters.

Before the internet and cable TV, there might have been some light argument for the existence of zoos in a 19th-century culture. Not now. Even the finest zoos evoke sadness. Watch a lion born to range across endless acres of African savannah lolling about in a tiny pen, periodically having meat thrown at it, and you cannot help but feel empathy for the incarcerated predator.

Ask yourself if you want to spend the rest of your life in a 2000-square-foot space.

Demographics are important in the calculation to build a new zoo. Will millennial and Generation Z parents take their kids to zoos, or would zoos be a reminder of the old world they’re increasingly rejecting? Soccer is a growth sport in the U.S. and worldwide, and civic leaders in Sacramento are smart to bring an MLS team here. Is a zoo a growth stock, or a relic?

Let’s look at what Sacramento currently needs. For starters, although Mayor Steinberg and the council have made a significant push toward getting 3,000 homeless people off the streets, we are not remotely there yet. Does that take priority over a zoo?

Measure U passed last year, and now it’s already financially vulnerable. Sacramento may have to issue long-term bonds to finance it to meet Mayor Steinberg’s goals. Some local leaders, like Barry Broome, the director of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, have even suggested the possibility of a repeal.

Have the lofty goals and promises floated during the Measure U campaign — community centers, pools and so on — been realized, or are we just buying a new red Maserati on a credit card when we can get away with changing the oil on the Honda Accord?

Oh, what about housing? Since California’s Legislature killed state Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, what can Sacramento’s civic leadership do to provide badly-needed affordable housing units? We know the answer. It’s so much more fun to build a shiny new home for animals instead of taking care of people, right?

Sacramento is what it is: a government company town that’s slowly but surely evolving into something low-key but better. We’ve got a great restaurant scene, a revitalized downtown, new arts venues and serious movement toward improving the sadly neglected riverfront.

Setting aside the now-questionable notion of zoos, the Sacramento Zoo as it is today can be a pleasant experience. In a 787 world, it’s a DC-3 — that’s precisely why it still works.

It’s not overly expensive, the giraffe exhibit is visible from the gas station and it’s right next to other late 1950s archetypes, like Fairytale Town, another place where you could rip it up and put in a Six Flags/Land Park. But why would you want to?

OK, so we don’t have hippos and baboons. Try “Planet Earth 2” on Netflix instead. You can get that for $8.99 per month instead of $150 million.

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