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A day at the zoo - The Lyorn's Den

Sun Nov. 19th, 2006

10:26 pm - A day at the zoo

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Another Sunday, nice weather, but not enough hours of the daylight (not after sleeping until 10, at least) for exploring the countryside, so I was off to the city again, and if I didn't get to the Monterey Aquarium on this stay, I'd at least see the San Francisco Zoo. I set out in the pre-noon fog, which still obscured the sun when the BART train disappeared into the Bay Tunnel, changed into the MUNI metro/streetcar at Civic Center, and emerged under a blue sky in some place called "West Portal", after passing below all the seriously hilly places where even the usually stubbornly straight streets adapt to the shape of the land.

The street car rattled along Taraval street through neighborhoods called Sunset and Parkside, which somehow reminded me of Privet Drive and surroundings in Little Whinging (movie version). It was not that the houses looked all the same -- in fact, not two of them did, they differed like cookies decorated by eager children differ, in colour and decoration and even shape. But every single one of them had a garage on the ground floor, and either a stair leading to an upper floor entrance, or a grille in front of an entrance, which, presumably, led to a stair leading to an upper floor... and so on. They stood side by side and didn't look large enough to fill a whole block, and I wondered if every small house had a small backyard garden. Looking at google maps, that seems to be the case. (Google maps is unreal.) The streets crossing Taraval are broad and have numbers. They go up hill in one direction (North) and down hill in the other (South), and the sky above them is decorated with electric wiring. Taraval street itself is lined by somewhat larger buildings, most housing Chinese or Irish businesses. Somehow I'm more convinced of the authenticity of the Chinese ones. Can't imagine why.

The whole journey took close to two hours. When I exited the streetcar one block from the zoo, the air was smelling of the sea, and before I had walked far, it was smelling of the zoo. The area did not seem especially large to me, but my sense of space is probably off, because I'm comparing everything with how large 50ha Niendorf seemed to an 8yo. However, smaller was better in this case, as it meant that I could spend as much time as I wanted everywhere I wanted. I enjoyed looking at the smaller monkeys and felt that humans got the short stick when I saw them effortlessly walk up trees and beams. The gorillas smelt strongly of (I guess) gorilla and were quite busy. It's strange how they look very human-like when sitting, yet not at all when standing or walking.

Gorilla chief walking Gorilla chief standing. And despite appearances, he's not wearing a G-string.

I had lunch in a café and because of an attack of cluelessness I paid nearly 3 Dollars for the privilege to drink water from a cup instead of from the bottle -- because if you take a cup, you pay for the unlimited amount of soda you can drink from it. Stupid me. OTOH, I didn't deserve better, adding to the insane amount of trash from disposable dishes without need. I read in the local newspaper that Oakland and San Francisco are about to ban styrofoam plates and cups and take-out boxes, and that Berkeley already has done so. Of course, this only means that the disposables will be cardboard in the future, but I like the taste of cardboard a lot more than I like the taste of styrofoam. (This is like comparing the velocity of a turtle vs. the velocity of a snail. There should be a "comparative minor" for such cases.)

There was an "Outback trail", sponsored by a local steak house. (I haven't yet gone out to eat steak. I'm strange.) It had a koala bear in a box hardly the size of a cubicle. A sign explained that this was the koala on duty, while all the others, feeling a mild autumn day in California too inhospitable to go out, were lounging in a heated place, probably watching TV and snacking on eucalyptus cough drops. The kangaroos were gathered around a munchies bowl, too, with a squirrel darting in and out to steal the food. A few kangaroos hopped off to have some grass for dessert. When they are grazing, they move in the most incredible way: They plant their front legs and their tail firmly on the ground and then very deliberately move their hind legs in an arch through the air to get them in a new position. Now that would make a new riddle for the old sphinx: Three-legged when grazing, two-legged when feeding from a plastic bowl, and four-legged when taking a dust bath. I realized that I'd never seen kangaroos before.

Neither did I ever see a live hippopotamus, and you are not likely to forget those! They are really as large as one would think, and as round, and then some. They look exactly like caricatures of themselves. Very strange beasts.

But what I loved best were the cats. (How come you are not surprised?) The San Francisco zoo is taking part in a breeding project for rare cats, and they had not only lions and tigers (and bears, oh my!), but also snow leopards, ocelots, and fishing cats. I didn't even know such an animal existed. It looks like a tabby cat, with slick, otter-like fur, a small head and rather small ears. Some sources say it actually has webbed feet, others deny that. I couldn't get close enough to decide. Here's a page with pictures. I also spent a long time staring at the snow leopard, once she had deigned to show herself. That was a large cat. With a tail as long as the cat. I wanted one as a stuffed animal, but all the snow leopard dolls in the gift shop had tiny little tails, and, of course, none looked as soft and regal.

In the lion house, a zoo keeper was cleaning the cages and petting the lions through the bars. The lion rubbed its large, maned head against the bars and looked as if it wanted to purr if it only knew how. The lions were the most photogenic animals, as they were large, and close, so I got a lot of lion pictures.

Lion Pensive lion on a bad hair day Another lion

Then there were some lions you could get even closer to:


The floor around all the bronze animal statues (there were a lot more than just lions, but the lions were the prettiest) was not stone, but some soft plastic, so that children playing on the statues and slipping would just bounce back when they hit the floor head-on. I didn't notice at first, until I stepped on it, and my first thought when the floor felt soft and vaguely squishy was, "Help! Man-eating floor!"

They had otters, too, which I think are too cute to be true and which, like sea lions, usually look as if they enjoy themselves. It was next-to impossible to get a decent picture at the distance, but I tried.

There are actually two otters here...

There also were penguins and flamingos and shiny multicoloured parrots, laughing kookaburras, grim-looking rhinos, a very, very old seal, and an "Insect Zoo", which I skipped.

I took the streetcar/metro back to Powell Street, where it was nearly dark already and walked up to Union Square, which was full of shoppers and where the dark outlines of palm trees could be seen against lighted Christmas trees. At the basement of Macy's I had a sorely needed coffee and an incredibly yummy molasses-ginger cookie. When I think of going home, I already miss the cookies.

I walked once around the square, thought about shopping for jeans but felt I hadn't yet decided what I really needed, which would make any attempt to get it an exercise in frustration, and went downhill again, back to the station. About half way I passed a big shop advertising "new and used CDs and DVDs". I was already half past the door when some mysterious power (i.e. complete lack of self control) drew me inside.

They didn't waste space on stairs in there. An elevator (marked "Transporter") took me to the upper floor where the used CDs were. It was spacious, and cool, and not crowded, and Iron Maiden's "Best of the Beast" was playing at a volume appropriate for a record store. If there is any pink happiness pill that can mimic the effect a non-crowded place and old heavy metal have on my nerves I'd stay far away from it as not to risk instant addiction. I spent a blissful hour browsing the racks, and only the fact that European bands were underrepresented had me walk out with only five CDs.

In the same way I should probably be thankful for DVD region codes. Because while the unknown life expectancy of DVDs keeps me from ordering a big box of them from amazon, only region coding keeps me from stacking up on them at bargain prices. Maybe I should write a letter of thanks to the folks in DVD producers' marketing departments for doing their best to keep me from spending too much on their product. After all, it's Thanksgiving week...