I am not a political person. If you start a partisan argument with me, I might win the Boston Marathon sprinting in the opposite direction. I believe what I believe, but I am non-confrontational by nature and will do almost anything to retain a friendship, so don’t ever ask me to take sides.
But when our new next-door neighbor, Nik Dehejia, asked if we would put an Oakland Zoo “Measure A1” sign in our front yard, it was a no-brainer.
I took five.
It’s one of the most respected zoos in the country — recognized by animal rights groups including the Humane Society, PETA and PAWS for award-winning, humane animal care. Nik is the zoo’s director of strategic initiatives and has two young children. He says taking them to the zoo “opens their hearts and minds to the importance of animals, their habitats, and the connections to the broader natural world.”
He didn’t have to convince me. In 1984 when my husband and I were newlyweds, our 800 sq. ft. starter home was one block off of I-580 at Keller Avenue — just one exit short of the Oakland Zoo. We were 24 years old and on a tight budget. On many weekend days, we would park near the zoo’s exit gate and duck through a jagged hole in a rusty chain link fence and sneak in to avoid the entrance fee. Yes, we were renegades.
We sat on a brown wooden bench beside the zebras, feeding each other cheese and apple slices from a wilted brown paper bag. I took a picture of my freckled boy-faced husband lying prone on the asphalt pretending he was tied to the railroad tracks. He wore a handmade green crew-necked sweater that he found in a college storage locker.
Sexy boy — seriously sexy…
(Someone stole that picture when they grabbed my purse from a Rockridge Safeway shopping cart. Of all of the belongings that have gone missing over the years, that Polaroid is one of the things I regret losing the most.)
As our finances improved, we entered the zoo with the crowd through the front gate, paying for both parking and admission. Once we became parents it was the perfect place to push a stroller with a colicky daughter, so we purchased a family membership.
One time Si took our toddler to the zoo without me and fed her olives from the tips of his fingers, large slices of pizza, “Orange Julius” and cotton candy. In the wee hours of the morning, he said he had absolutely no idea why Sarah was throwing up.
Over the years, Si donated money to purchase a brick by the entrance with Sarah's and my names on it. I added his name to the sign at the lion habitat. Finally, we added our youngest daughter Emily’s name to the elephant exhibit. I hope our donations atoned for our trespassing in the early years.
We have so many great memories — making faces and laughing at the shaggy Scottish cow and riding the gondola over the native California landscape which we referred to as “Buffalo Rome” (… Get it? “Oh, give me a home, where the Buffalo Rome?” It remains the closest I have ever been to Italy.)
I remember the spider monkey in a cage at the entrance to the Children’s Zoo. I swear he recognized me. When I jumped up and down, he did, too. If I leaned to the left or right, he did, too. Any movement I made, he mirrored.
I adored him. And I think he thought I was OK, too, as far as fur-challenged primates go.
Then one day his cage stood empty. I stopped abruptly in my tracks, staring at Si in disbelief. I asked the girl handing out green goat kibble where my monkey buddy had gone. She said he had passed away.
I was devastated. He was my monkey buddy, and now there was just an empty cage.
The memory still makes me sad. When I asked Si about his favorite zoo memories he said, “Weren’t the camels mating one day? I know the lion was mating one day.” Then he said, “Hey — you want to hear a zoo joke? You can tell the tiger is telling the truth because he’s not lion.”
This sums up a basic difference between us. My zoo story has soul connections and epic tragedy. Si’s has sex and stupid puns. I suppose there is room in the zoo and on our planet for both.
And just when I formed that wise opinion, Si said, “Remember the time I sponsored the pair of peach-faced love birds for you as a Christmas present?”
So read the fine print in the Alameda County voter’s pamphlet to decide whether the zoo is worthy of your “Yes” vote. Or trust me that the Oakland Zoo gives so much to people at a time when some can’t afford much.
And please remember to vote. The animals don’t get the same privilege.