Visiting the Oakland Zoo in the San Francisco Bay Area

Three elephants live at the Oakland zoo (Credit: MCArnott)

Three elephants live at the Oakland zoo (Photo by MCArnott)

The elephants remind me of a story about a female pachyderm that lived at the then-downtown Oakland Zoo. “Effie” was so used to seeing the owner’s family stroll on the grounds that one day she did what family members do: Help push the baby’s buggy.

But in the 1950s things were very different. The zoo was privately owned (after a landowner’s bankruptcy coincided with a naturalist’s dream to create a small zoo), the owner’s house stood among the animal pens, and populating the zoo involved capturing predators in Africa and lassoing a bear in the Arctic.

The animals were put to work by providing exciting entertainment. Parades, for example, were a mixed tradition of circus and zoo: The tiger would ride on a platform fitted to the donkey’s back, and Effie would play the harmonica.

Since then, the ethics about animals in captivity have changed and managing a zoo has become a challenging commitment. Today, the Oakland Zoo has a modern veterinary hospital that can treat miniature frogs or elephants. It also offers global conservation and education programs, all of which requiring a substantial, and sustainable, budget.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Oakland Zoo is located in a spacious park.
  • Children see animals in a natural environment.
  • It is a fun place for birthday parties and sleepovers.
  • Good for families, tourists, school field trips.

Debating Zoos, Captivity, and Extinction

Snoozing Tiger at the Oakland Zoo (Credit: Cindy Dumollard)

Snoozing Tiger at the Oakland Zoo (Photo courtesy Cindy Dumollard)

The idea of animals living in zoos is still controversial, in part because of the reprehensible living conditions in the zoos and circuses of  the past. In fact, looking at a tiger sound asleep reminds me of my “face to face” encounter with another tiger, many years ago. Staying at the only accommodation available while on a road trip, I was stunned to see a tiger (tied to a tree) on the patch of grass outside the window of my ground floor room. The animal was part of a traveling show of a dubious nature judging by the “mural” painted on the long truck on the parking lot. Today, animal rights organizations do their best to get unsuitable facilities closed, and most reputable zoos have adequate enclosures, a natural-seeming environment, and facilities allowing animals to live in natural social groups.

As I walk by some of the habitats of the 45-acre Oakland Zoo, I consider the plight of tigers and the role of today’s zoos in keeping them from extinction. According to the World Wildlife Organization, as few as 3,200 tigers still live in the wild. More than double that number live in captivity, meaning that the fate of this specie –whether it will become extinct or not–in part depends on zoos with breeding programs. In fact, I didn’t see any tigers at all when I went on a tiger-sighting tour in Ranthambore National Park in India. Habitat destruction but also illegal trade are two reasons that put wild tigers “face to face” with extinction.

The Oakland Zoo adopted four tiger-sisters from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas after their previous owner could no longer care for them. But, other than caring for captive exotic animals, the zoo’s mission is also to rescue native species and to raise wildlife awareness. I find it reassuring that Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program endorses the Oakland Zoo for its teen leadership program, and for its actions supporting local and global conservation.

660 species live at the Oakland Zoo (Photo courtesy Cindy Dumollard)

Safari-Time at the Zoo

As I push my grandson in his stroller, the vast open area feels so natural that we hadn’t noticed the Vervet monkeys going about their daily business in the trees along the path. When they shriek and bark, we stop to watch them, which gets my little grandson very excited. Farther, we get a glimpse of squirrel monkeys chasing each other. As for the chimpanzees, they watch us as if they had their own judgemental thoughts about us, visitors.

Giraffes at the African Savannah of the Oakland Zoo (Credit: Cindy Dumollard)

Giraffes at the African Savannah of the Oakland (Photo courtesy Cindy Dumollard)

We trek uphill to the African veldt of the giraffes, and  a conveniently located bench. Like us, the animals are thirsty. I get a kick out of watching them bend their rear legs as they graciously bow toward the water. A question seems to remain: Do they eat leaves on tall trees because of their long neck, or where they created for that purpose? Their ability to get a simple drink of water seems a bit of a “creation miss.” Their life here, however, must be conducive to mating and raising a family judging by the recently-born calf .

Close by,  two of the “Big Five” animals — as safari tour operators call them – enjoy space and quiet. One elephant seems to meditate while a lion rises on the reconstituted cliff of its own enclosure seemingly ready to address the animal kingdom. Other big cats snooze in the shade of trees.

I smile at a camel because I have always found their haughty impassivity and heavily lashed eyes of camels quite irresistible. In spite of the company of three females this male looks rather bored, but who knows? Farther on, zebras seem ready for a fun event with their attention-getting black and white stripes.

Dromedary camel at the Oakland Zoo (Photo courtesy Cindy Dumollard)

Animal Petting Zoo and Rides for Kids

The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children Zoo gets my grandson so excited, he gets off his stroller. After all, the real animals were out of reach, and far less attractive that the fake giant red frog he toddles to. Here, he smiles at cats, dogs, sheep and other domestic animals. The alligators get his suspicious look, but never mind: We end our visit with a ride on the Outback Express train, for a quick tour of “Australia.”


  • Check transportation access, parking and schedules for the Oakland Zoo.
  • Picnic area and food available on site.
  • Check for seasonal activities (Easter, Halloween, Christmas).
  • Other than the zoo, the 525-acre Knowland Park consists mainly of wild land offering activities such as bird watching or kite flying.
  • Ever thought of saying “I do” at the Oakland zoo? Check out their wedding service!


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  1. says

    hi i dont think effies as old as you think .when i was little 5 or so my mom and dad took me to the oakland zoo and it was as you said the animals where in cages more than pens with bars and you could get way to close . effies was in a real big cage just bars . you could get a peanut and give it right to her hand to trunk . and i did have a eye to eye with her when she took my hand with her trunk and held it . not hard and it did not hurt but she was saying look at me . i did . and i did not get as close again . but i always love to see her as we went back every few years . and it was odd she would always give me the time and stay as long as i was at her cage . i wonder if she would rember me now as i do her ? oyah they never forget.

    • Marie Claude Arnott says

      Thank you for your interest and for your comments. How nice that you got to meet Effie! I don’t know how old the young elephant was when she arrived in Oakland, but since it was in 1958, you are right: the early 1900s was too early a time for her to push the buggy at the zoo. It should have read the mid 1900s. Good point!


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