The Zoo at the Top of the Stairs

by Rob English

On Syracuse’s West side it’s a parade of four-year-old. Guided with care by their Pre-K teachers and volunteering parents, twenty or more-four-year-old little boys and girls come out of their classroom at Delaware School, and for several minutes, in more or less single file, they ascend curving Wilbur Avenue proceeding north. Further on, where the road levels off, the teachers cautiously lead their charges across the street and onto the easternmost lawn of the city’s Burnet Park, where a long, attractive, staircase of old block and brick waits to lead its climbers up to the high “Elephant” parking lot of Syracuse and Onondaga County’s modern, world-class zoo. The heavy old stair has moss and little plants growing from its cracks and pine needles in its hundred corners, and is cut narrowly between rabbit brush and tall fir trees, where free-living small animals watch from safety as the children and their escorts climb. Negotiating the fifty-nine tall steps with a ten-foot landing after every four provides exercise for everybody and stimulates improved connectivity between the developing nervous systems and muscles of the growing four-year-olds.

At the top, while still sixty yards from the zoo entrance, the group may hear a tremendous and bone-chilling uproar of highly excited non-human voices. Are the zoo’s siamang apes welcoming the kids? Probably not. More likely it’s that the food cart has arrived at the primate exhibit.

Today’s primate exhibits at our zoo, like all the exhibits there, were designed and are maintained with the well-being of its animals in mind. The mission succeeds in large part, the only flaw being that some of the animals on exhibit were not evolved to spend their time constrained behind steel bars or plate glass. But that is a challenge for adults to solve, not four-year-olds.

Walking along in the zoo the wide-eyed kids see comfortably warm snakes and tarantulas and crabs, pandas, and gorgeous birds, and penguins, and they watch comfortably cold otters joyfully chasing each other in and out of the water of their stimulating enclosure, and they see cute, tiny monkeys swinging from little trees, and more. Outside there is the petting zoo, a herd of bison, the enormous elephants (and maybe an adorable BABY elephant!). These exhibits and all the others at our modern zoo are a far cry from those here of a generation ago. In those days “zoo animals” were kept for the amusement of the ignorant crowds and for bragging rights by officials. There was so little concern for the exhibits that highly intelligent creatures such as mandrills and bears and elephants clearly exhibited signs of extreme anxiety from the cramped enclosures, filth, exposure to cigarette and cigar smoke, and, above all from the severe boredom that arose from a complete inability to express the species-defined nature that God instilled in them at birth.

No more. In 1982, local government authorities, business leaders, and organizations such as the Friends of Zoo saw the problem and agreed to contribute and raise the funds necessary so that the zoo could be modernized and made more habitable for its inmates. The mission was a huge success. Today our Rosamond Gifford Zoo is considered to be among the top ten such operations in the United States. It famously houses, preserves, and helps to propagate the numbers of several endangered species and their biological diversity. It’s really something to be proud of.

Questions remain. A tiger is born to prowl and hunt. A free-living herd of elephants may walk forty-miles in a day in search of good fruit and a favorite mud hole to drink from and bathe in. At some point in the adult lives of our human four year-olds, they may wrestle with whether it’s acceptable or necessary to keep a tiger confined behind plate glass, or a family of elephants in a four acre yard just because the thunder of a roaring tiger makes the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck and a trumpeting elephant causes a thrill to run up and down one’s spine. Do visits to the zoo really teach children to know and love animals if they see their parents serving slaughtered ones for dinner? Someday maybe the kids will find an answer to those questions in the form of plant-based meat and almond milk served in a world where tigers and elephants and snails don’t become endangered. But for now, the little ones have to negotiate themselves down that challenging old stone staircase and parade back along Wilbur Avenue to their classrooms. And a nap. I think I can guess what they’ll dream about.

Rob is a member of People for Animal Rights. If you would like to know more about the Zoo go to