Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Zoo part one

When I was 17 or so, I went to a big amusement park with my boyfriend. I don't remember which one, but it had the usual arrangement of roller-coasters and rides...which I LOVE. It also had a little train that traveled through a sort of zoo area. I clearly remember being in line, and being really excited. I was singing a little song in a silly voice. If I close my eyes and think back, I can practically hear the boyfriend's voice repeating after me, teasing me about my song..."the animals...the animals...we're going to see the animals."

I don't remember much about the train ride itself...or what we saw from our car. I only know that it made me very sad. That was the day I decided that zoos were bad and I would never step foot inside one again.

When I was 17, the world seemed as black and white as zebras, and "never" was a reasonable time line for spur-of-the-moment decisions.

I have since learned to appreciate zoos, but I will probably never again feel bubbling excitement on my way inside one. Instead, I approach them with a kind of regretful reverence and cautious curiosity.

The problem, of course, is the persistent impression that these animals are in jail. It's so easy to start thinking, "They didn't do any thing wrong! Why are they in cages? Let's set them free! Free! Free!"

When I went to the Charles Paddock Zoo last month with my 10-year-old friend, S, I practically held my breath as we walked through the entrance. I really wanted us to have a nice time, and see some things that wouldn't depress us.

I think the zoo planners must have been thinking of people like me when they designed the layout, because the first animals we saw didn't seem to be in jail at all. They were just sitting out in the open, free to leave at any time. (At least, that's the way they looked. It didn't occur to me until just now that their flight wings may have been clipped.) Anyway, they were gorgeous, and fun to watch.

I'm not sure who that is above, but I had to include the photo because he is just so pretty. The ones below are Blue and Gold Macaws (Ara Ararauna). They are disappearing in the wild because the forests are being cut down, and because they get snatched by illegal pet traders.

Aren't they lovely? How do they get so colorful?

Then next exhibit was a small flock of flamingos. Their placard explained how their pinkness is derived from carotenoids in the crustaceans they eat.

But there wasn't any card explaining how the parrots make those blue, gold and green feathers!

Neither was their a sign telling us that the flamingo's food isn't pink when they are eating it, as I have always imagined. Rather, the color that shows up in the live prey is usually blue or green. The pink pigment doesn't show up until the carotenoids are dissolved in the flamingo's fat, and deposited into the growing feathers. This sounds strange, until you remember how shrimp and lobsters look when they are raw...kind of greenish brown...and how they look when they are cooked...bright red or pink! Apparently, heat from cooking and digestion by flamboyant birds (or salmon) are somewhat similar processes. (I just learned all that by searching for more info on-line.)

On this same side of the zoo there is also an enclosed and roofed area that is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. This is a somewhat sadder display, because it's clear these flightful creatures can't just escape on their own.

Still, I enjoyed it, especially the first bird I saw. I nearly gasped with delight, because I knew right away what it was...a red-legged, white-bellied, Black Necked Stilt!

Apparently, these bird are wild local residents. For months, I've been making googley eyes at the ones in my field books, greedily anticipating the day when I might spot one of my own! (I used the word greedy because there are SO many amazing birds here that I do see regularly, it seems almost ridiculous to be begging for more.)

It was a big thrill to see this one up close and personal. But, I can't really add it to my "life list" anymore than I can boast to other birders about spotting a pair of Macaws from South America.

There were several other interesting species in the aviary. But, other than a white Ibis, I couldn't identify them. (I don't know why they wouldn't just stand still in front of their placards!)

I was particularly enamored with this little trio. They reminded me of soldiers, in brown jackets and black helmet...guarding a castle gate.

We must have looked okay, because they let us pass, and re-enter the main area...where we could determine who was the winner of a little contest we had going.

Before we got to the zoo, S and I tried to guess what kinds of animals we would see when we got there. I think I said zebras (none), ostrich (nada), and honey badger (nope.) S however, predicted we would see Meerkats, and she was absolutely right. (You win, Gingersnap!)

These omnivorous Slender Tailed Meerkats, with the amusingly repetitive Latin name: Suricata suricatta, are type of South African mongoose. I suppose they didn't build it themselves, but I still have to say, I just love their house!

I also loved the way they would sprawl out on the sand like sunbathers. Because their enclosure was only about 5 feet high, I could easily hold my camera up over it to take a picture. I didn't think the little guys would notice, but boy, did they! The one shown below looked so calm and relaxed before I put my hand over the edge...but as soon as I did, his head spun around so fast I worried I might have given him whiplash!

It's no wonder they are jumpy about sudden movement above. Their greatest enemies are vultures and birds of prey. Sorry, Mr. Meerkat!

I'm sure you'll think it predictably egotistical of me when I admit that, of all fascinating fauna we saw that day, my favorite captive citizens were the ones that seemed almost human. In addition to the sunbathing Meerkats, I was absolutely charmed by the White Fronted Marmosets.

I wish I'd gotten a better picture. In this one, his pensive little face is hardly visible. And it's hard to see that these little guys were some of the most active of all the animals we saw that day. They were literally climbing the walls, and carousing around on the raised platforms and walkways of their carefully arranged environment like it was a tri-level speedway.

This Black Handed Spider Monkey wasn't nearly as energetic, but he was just as fascinating.

S and I sat down on a bench where we had a clear view of him sitting up on a branch. He looked just as comfortable as we were, and just as interested. Staring at him, feeling him staring at me, I couldn't help but start to wonder...who was watching who? Which one of us was the entertainment and which one of us was being entertained? It was like looking in a fun house mirror...but instead of seeing the kind of "before" and "after" versions of myself that would sell diet pills, it was like seeing "before" and "after" version of myself as Darwin would have drawn them. I felt if I could just remove the mirror, we would be revealed to be exactly the same.

I was jostled from my fantastic reverie when the monkey suddenly reached behind himself and took hold of a large poo, just as it was coming out of his butt. He raised it to his nose for a sniff, and then gave it a few turns, considering it from every angle.

Suddenly, I didn't feel so connected to him. I knew that no matter how long we sat their, neither S or I were going to take a poo. And if we did, we certainly weren't going to roll it around in our palms. (Maybe that is why these Spider Monkeys are called Black-Handed.)

When we resumed our stroll through the park-like menagerie, we were able to observe and learn about animals from all over the world, including Emus and Wallabys (Australia), Two Toed Sloths and Prehensile Tailed Porcupines (South America), Aldabra tortoises (Indian Ocean Islands), Crested Porcupines and Red River Hogs (Africa), Prevosts Squirrel (Southeast Asia) and a Burmese Python (China).

There were even a couple of creatures that were completely new to me. Did you know that the Fossa is the top predator on the island of Madagascar? And have you heard of the "stotting" Patagonian Cavies? They look like little deer, but are related to Guinea Pigs. They can achieve high speeds over long distances by bouncing along on all four limbs at once.

It looked like the zoo-keepers had taken care to make the animals comfortable. The cages and enclosures were all arranged to look and feel like a natural habitat, except for this one.

I guess they figured that livestock has been living with humans for so long that a barnyard IS their natural environment. And I have to agree with them. The animal pictured above is one of their Jacob Sheep, a "Heritage Breed" that may have originated in what is now Syria some 3,000 years ago. This display also held alpacas, which Andean societies began domesticating as many as 6,000 years ago!

So, I didn't feel bad about seeing these two species "in-jail." In fact, they looked a lot cleaner, healthier and happier than the pot-bellied-ponies or whatever it is they have at the Avila Valley Barn Farm Store.

to be continued...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our Zoo part twoo

And I didn't feel too bad about the birds and reptiles either. Sure, most birds are accustomed to being able to fly...which must be one of the greatest pleasures that any living being ever experiences. But, they are only "bird-brains" after all. I find it hard to believe they really suffer from captivity in a well designed arboretum. Same with the reptiles...can their simple brains begin to grasp the fact that they are being held against their will. Do they even have a will...other than the urge to hunt, kills and eat?

But what about the mammals, the ones that haven't been turned into livestock over the last several thousand years? This is where the dilemma begins for me.

Putting these animals in cages, no matter how "humanely" they are designed, doesn't just keep them contained, it keeps them from being themselves.

What becomes of a Red River Hog who never sees a river?
How can the Fossa be a "top predator" when it has no prey?
Is a "stotting" Patagonia Cavie still a Cavie if she is forever unable to stot?

These questions plague me. I put them to rest by remembering my pets: Frankie, Dosher and Pi. I know Frank would rather be outside killing birds any day of the week, but she seems to settle for prowling about the sofa. Pipey, if freed, would pee her way around the neighborhood, and then come home for supper. Dosh wouldn't go any farther than the front stoop, no matter how long we left her out there.

I know my animal companions are decended from a long line of domesticated little monsters, and that is part of why they are such home-bodies. But I still think they make a good example of how mid-size mammals feel about their places of confinement. They don't see themselves as "trapped" inside the house (most of the time.) They see themselves as "home."

I suspect that is how many of the zoo animals feel as well; that their pens are their safe areas. And if the territory is smaller than what they would claim in the wild, maybe that is okay because there is enough food and water to sustain them. Isn't that the main deciding factor for how large or small a wild animal makes it's territory scarcity or abundance?

Ok. So I've talked myself into feeling peaceful about the Housecat to Border Collie sized specimens.

But what about the meerkats, marmosets and monkeys? They are more than just mammals to me. With their grasping digits and thoughtful expressions, they easily convince me of our close family connection.

How do I feel about these furry little people being locked away for a lifetime? At first, it seems just awful. But, when I started to really consider the reality of human nature, it doesn't seem that bad. U.S. citizens watch an average of 151 hours of TV every month (Nielsen, 2008.) Add to that the 240 hours we spend sleeping and the other 240 hours we spend at school or work and you're pretty much got the month covered. Most of our few remaining hours are spent traveling back and forth from our TV's to our offices and classrooms.

Really, considering what we homo-sapiens do with our so-called freedom, the human resemblance these three little "M" species share might actually be a reason why they are so WELL adapted to life in a box.

Having completed these emotional, semi-rational decision-making processes, I was almost able to conclude my zoo tour in absolute comfort and ease. After all, I wasn't visiting these animals in jail, I was a guest in their very own living rooms. What in the world could be wrong with that?

And then I saw the tiger.


There is just no way I can look a tiger in a cage, especially a gorgeous orange and black striped Malaysian Tiger like this one, and not feel my heart sink down to my heels.

Tigers should not be in cages.

I don't care how many house they spend asleep. I don't care how well they are fed. I don't care how lovely and lush their environs are made to be.

Tigers should not be in cages.

I'm not the only person who feels this way. Back at home, I started researching the Charles Paddock Zoo on-line. (I can't even remember how I lived before the internet...can you?)

On a site called "lotsafunmaps" one traveler expresses his extreme disappointment in the zoo, especially this exhibit. He writes about the "life and hope gone from his eyes." He asks, "why buy a Tiger if you don't have room for one?" And he laments, "for the sake of my and my child's entertainment, he spends his life this way." He concludes that his zoo entrance fee was "last money of mine that will support such cruelty."

I know this is not the effect "Mike" was expecting his comments to have, but after reading them I felt a whole lot better about the Charles Paddock Zoo, and zoos in general. He was putting words to the emotions I had been feeling. Under scrutiny, they just don't hold up.

"Life and hope gone from his eyes?" Really? This is so clearly a statement of projected emotion. How could any of us every-day citizens be able to accurately discern a "woe-is-me" expression from the countenance of a bored, frustrated, content or curious cat of this size? I doubt even animal scientists can do it.

"Why buy a Tiger?" This guy is obviously not thinking his arguments through. This issue is not the same as that of puppies, dog breeders and mills. The problem with Tigers is NOT overpopulation! We're not going to end their suffering by refusing to buy them.

In fact, this Malayan Tiger (not Burmese, as the lostsafun guy mistakenly names him) is represented in the wild by only 500 or so individuals.

"For the sake of my...entertainment?" This is probably the most embarrassing statement "Mike" makes, as it reveals the complete self-centered nature of his perceptions. Zoos are not like movie theaters or roller coasters. They do not exist solely for the amusement of paying customers.

While providing a happy experience for human visitors is important, accredited zoos also play a huge role in conservation. Sadly, for many animals, zoos are their last hope of survival. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums oversees Species Survival Plans for many endangered megafauna such as cheetahs, rhinos, pandas, gorillas, giraffes and yes, tigers. As a participating institution, the Charles Paddock zoo contributes to a united effort to conserve, protect and study endangered and threatened species along with the wild places they inhabit.

Zoos also play a vital role in environmental education.

As Bill Baker of the Abilene Zoo puts it, "It’s our reach out to the next generation that will become the conservators of the’s critically important that [children] understand the role that people can and do play in the preservation of the wild places of the world."

If I have one criticism of the zoo, it is in the area of education. Is there some way the can communicate the value of the zoo in a clearer way? I hate thinking that children who visit with guys like Mike leave thinking that they best thing they can do for animals is to never again pay an entrance fee that will "support such cruelty."

For those of us who care about wild animals, as I believe poor misguided Mike really does, one of the BEST things we can do is give money to zoos. So I'm inviting you now to go and visit the Charles Paddock Zoo, or one local to you, and don't just pay the entrance fee, give them a big tip too!

Or donate on-line at

If people like Mike don't want to give their money to zoos, that's fine. They can do other things to help wild animals, like reduce the amount of fossil fuels and cheap foreign goods they consume. Or they could petition their representatives in congress to push for stronger protections for the environment. They can chain themselves to redwood trees or pick up trash along the beach.

But to blame zoos for the plight of Malaysian Tigers and other majestic, endangered species is like blaming TV newscasters for deaths in Darfur. The people who bring a sad situation to your attention are not the same people who are causing it.

So, Thank You Mike, for helping me think more clearly about this issue. And, Thank You Charles Paddock Zoo for all you do to help animals, and for giving us a lovely afternoon.


Dear Mr. Lostafunmaps,

The object you derisively refer to as a "sculpture" is actually a children's drinking fountain. As such, it is not laughable, is it adorable. I'm sorry your kids didn't get to enjoy their experience at the zoo, but it was not because an enjoyable experience wasn't there, just waiting to be had.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Pie in the Sky

I may have set my sights a little to high when I started this writing project.

Last week, when I mentioned our camping trip to Pinnacles National Monument, I had the nerve to add, "more about that later." I shouldn't make such promises! Despite my best intentions, as long as I am blogging only one day a week (sometimes less!) there is just no way I can tell you about every fun thing we do around here. They pile up too fast.

I mean, consider last Saturday. We hiked up Cerro Alto during the day, and went to a show at the Steynberg Gallery in the evening. I'd like to write comprehensive, entertaining, well-crafted accounts of both these activities, and share some photos too. But first and foremost, I MUST tell you about what we did for lunch.

I know I mentioned the Last Stage West Barbeque in my previous post about Atascadero Lake Park. Despite having driven past this eye-catching establishment at least umpteen times, I had never dropped in. Honestly, I don't know if I would have thought of going on this day either, if I hadn't recently mentioned it here and then felt silly for not being able to say anything intelligible about it.

And if we hadn't gone...we would have missed getting our pictures taken in the hillbilly fence!

We wouldn't have been amazed by the apparently natural, authentic and un-manipulated image "Jolly Jim's" ghost in the Mystery Tree.

We wouldn't have had the chance to admire this locally built, quarter-size replica of an WWI era S-44 Submarine.

We'd have missed learning about our local history from the extensive wall display of vintage posters, maps and news articles.

And, perhaps most heart-breakingly, we still would never have tasted their homemade deep dish lemon-berry pie!

There it is, a whole post, just about the place where we stopped for lunch on a day filled with fabulousness. I didn't even tell you about the live music by a local singer-songwriter with the kind of wonderfully dark-sweet voice that makes you think of molasses and sweet potatoes. Neither did I describe the perfectly seasoned slow-cooked ribs or explain how our dessert was the love child of a lemon bar and a blackberry tart.

My original plan of turning this blog into some kind of thorough, orderly tour of Central Coast attractions was clearly just a fantasy. I knew it was going to take years to explore all this area has to offer. That is not surprise. But the cold, hard reality I'm beginning to face is this: unless I devote a lot more time to this blog, writing about all of it would take lifetimes.

If you want to hear more about our hike up Cerro Alto or the recent Steynberg show, hang in there. Those events is still fresh in my memory, I haven't given up on writing about them yet.

But, if you want to learn about the Talus Caves or the Condor Program at Pinnacles National may just have to check out the National Park Service website:

Or, come to California and see it for yourselves...but only if you make time in your trip to visit with us too!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Invalid Adventures

The Central Coast is not a place for armchair travelers! There's no excuse for staying home and reading about far-off lands. There are just too many fabulous adventures waiting for us right outside.

But, what if you caught the nasty bug that's been floating around lately, and hardly have the energy to get up and fix your own cheerios? Is it exceptable to stay at home in that case?

Not if you're married to me!

Because, a couple years ago I single-handedly, solo-mindedly designed and built a very clever collapsible bed platform for our old VW van. (Can you tell I'm real proud of it?)

And, because we went camping in Pinnacles National Monument last weekend (more on that later), and didn't get around to breaking it down during the work week, we still had it set up!

Isn't it cute? Isn't it adorable? Isn't is great how we can slide our cooler and other stuff under the bed like drawers? I just love any excuse to use it, and K having a bad cold looked like a good one to me.

So, grab your Puffs Plus, Honey! Just because you're bed-ridden doesn't mean your house-bound!

We spent the morning parked at the 24th St. Exit lot, reading books, watching Brown Pelicans,

gazing out at Morro Rock in the distance,

and thrilling to the dramatic leaps and jumps of our local kite surfers.

It seems like such a peak-experience sport, but I can't imagine I'll ever learn to do it. It just seems so demanding and complicated. Look, this guy isn't even on his board or in the water...he's just standing on the beach with his big kite in the air, and it still seems challenging.

I'll probably stick to more mundane activities, like playing fetch with the dog.

After a few hours of strenuous activity (can you read the irony in that?), we had developed quite an appetite. So, we drove into downtown Cayucos and picked up sandwiches at Duckies. (yum!)

Then we drove a little further north on the 1, and parked our rolling picnic where we could look out over a slightly different, but equally beautiful, stretch of California coastline.

We enjoyed wonderful views to the back,

to the front,

and even inside!

She is "Pretty in Plaid," isn't she? At least, she's pretty up against it.

All in all, we had a lovely day filled with fun and food, nature and culture, sloth and lethargy. And none of it could have happened if I hadn't built that bed in the van!

(Not even the last photos...because "poodle" isn't allowed up on the bed at home!)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Park at the Lake

There are two ways to get to Atascadero from our house in Los Osos.

The most direct route is simply taking California State Route 41 from Morro Bay. It's a beautiful twisty-turny highway that takes you past the Avacado Country Store, the Cerro Alto Campground and Trailheads, Last Stage West Barbeque and a large private display of metal dinosaur sculptures. (Owen, I think of you every time I see them!)

The other option is to drive, counter-intuitively, southeast on Hwy 1 to San Luis, and then head North on the 101. You will cover more miles this way, but it will take about the same amount of time because the roads are wider and straighter and you can drive a lot faster. This is the way to go if the weather is bad, or if you want to make a stop in SLO. This is also the way to go if you want to experience "The Grade," a dramatic and scenic section which will take you up or down 1000 feet in 5 miles. It's a 7% incline...which doesn't seem so steep, until you are on it. (Interstate Highways are built at a maximum grade of 6%)

Ok, now you know HOW to get up there...but what are you going do after you arrive?

Well, you might want to stop at the Atascadero Lake Park. Especially if it's a warm sunny day, and you've brought a picnic.

There plenty of nice tables, benches, and barbeque stands spread out under the trees. I think part of the reason I like it here so much is that it reminds me of Maryland, with it's adorable white gazebo

stone and mortar benches,

And abundance of domestic waterfowl.

If you're interested in birds, you can look forward to seeing a lot more than just swans, ducks and geese. Last time I was there I spotted my first Great Tailed Grackle,

along with a dozen other species that I wasn't able to identify...because I didn't bring my binoculars! (When I am going to learn never to leave the house without them?)

Happily, this guy wasn't shy at all, and let me get up real close. But, I don't have a field guide for turtles, so I can't tell you what kind he or she is. Does anyone else know?

Part of the reason you can see so many interesting things at the Lake Park, is that there is a nicely maintained dirt trail that goes all around the water. It's a sweet place to walk your dog (on leash, please!) or jog a few level laps.

When you are finished picniking in the shade, looping the lake, and looking at wild-life, you will undoubtedly become curious about the other major attraction at this location, the zoo.

At first you may think you have stepped into some kind of severe "truth in advertizing" zone. After all...the official name for the park and lake area is simply, "Atascadero Lake Park." And, the 5-acre display of captive animals is called "The Paddock Zoo."

(a paddock is a fenced or otherwise enclosed area)

But this Zoo is actually named for Charles Paddock, a county park ranger, who spent much of the 1950's and 60's nursing wild animals back to health. For a small zoo, it gives you a lot to look at, and a lot to think about. So, I am going to give it it's own post.

I will also try, in the future, to post about the other things I mentioned above: Cerro Alto, the dinosaurs, Last Stage West and the Avacado store.

But I doubt I will write anymore about "The Grade." What more is there to say about a steep patch of road? You just have to experience it this video! I really enjoyed it, and hope you do too!

(If the link isn't "clickable" just cut and paste it into your browser. Or, search for "US 101 San Luis Obispo, CA The Cuest Grade" on YouTube.)