Care, Connect, Conserve, Coastal: A Conversation with Joe Fitting, Deputy Director of the San Franci

Sitting on 100 acres and home to over 1,000 animals, the San Francisco Zoo is a large zoo and features a great diversity of wildlife. Joe Fitting is the deputy director of the Zoo and has been there since 1979. “I’m kind of like the sheriff,” he said. “I constantly ask why we are doing things the way we do them. I help our director Tanya Peterson with specialized projects. I’ve been here a long time so I have institutional knowledge.” Here is his story.

@ San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo is currently operated by a private nonprofit. “The City of San Francisco ran the Zoo until 1991,” Fitting explained. “Then they asked the zoological society to take over the day-to-day management of the Zoo. That was unusual at the time and one of the first public-private partnerships of a zoo. Up until that point zoos were often at the bottom of the food chain for money since the city was responsible for all the funding. Now anything we build the society raises most of the money for. The city still owns all the land but we manage it.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

For much of his time at the Zoo, Fitting has worked in the education department. “In the 1950s the zoological society began to run more and more education programs,” he stated. “The Zoo’s mission is to connect visitors to wild places. We get visitors to become engaged and hopefully take action to preserve wild places. We call it the three Cs: care, connect, conserve. Education programs are the vehicles to help connect close to a million visitors to the natural world. Through that connection they form here, they start to care and then they will help conserve.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

“Here we have a very parklike setting- laws, waters, lakes, food, rides, beautiful grounds,” Fitting continued. “We’re also a garden. We have beautiful plants and try to connect visitors to the plants. Without plants, you don’t have animals so there’s a logical connection. We’re spending more energy into becoming a botanical garden. The whole park is a living classroom. You can’t see gorillas anywhere else in Northern California and a vast major of our visitors will never see them in the wild. Seeing an animal up close is very important.”

@ Scott Richardson

A major focus of the San Francisco Zoo has been on educating children. “We have a lot of kids who come here on school field trips,” Fitting commented. “One of the things I wanted to do when in education was give as many opportunities to as many kids as we can. In 1979, we have 40-50 kids who volunteered with us while now we have about 500 teens help us. Our outreach programs have quadrupled in volume as well. We have the docent program where adults act as interpreters. It’s vastly improved and so much more than what we had when we started.”

@ Joe Fitting

In recent years, the San Francisco Zoo has incorporated a stronger animal wellness brand. “Our animal wellness initiative demonstrates that we really care,” Fitting said. “We are working on activating our habitats so we can stimulate the minds and bodies of the animals. We have great nutrition, behavior and veterinary programs. We keep our animals engaged and work to prevent stereotypic behaviors. Animal welfare is an evolving field and science and we’re keeping up with it.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

“We have trained behaviorists who have advanced degrees in animal behaviors,” Fitting continued. “They work to activate the animals so they’re not fat lazy slugs but motivated, engaged and stimulated animals. When you think of these animals in the wild, it’s a really tough experience. Big cats in the wild will likely have scars and broken teeth as they face so many hardships out there. Here we can keep our lions and tigers lean, trimmed, activated, motivated and interacting with each other and us. There’s a whole push for animal welfare to get them moving, which has worked very well. The heart of our wellness program is if we can’t do it right we don’t do it. there are so many exciting and dynamic animals that we want to show there is an amazing diversity of life on the planet and everything needs helps.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo is constantly improving and evolving. Much of this is due to new animal habitats. “The city never had much money to do improvements or upgrades,” Fitting recalled. “Through the society and reaching out to the donor world we’re able to improve the way people interact with the park and engage them more. Philanthropy is much stronger now and the zoo has improved a lot in the past twenty years. We opened our African Savanna in 2004, which is pretty spectacular. I also really like the penguin exhibit and it’s a great example of how we have retrofitted old facilities. It was originally just a reflecting pool but we realized it was perfect for penguins as it’s got a large volume of water where the birds can exercise, swim and move. We created burrows for them and the birds really thrive there. We have one of the largest and most successful magellanic penguin colonies around and have had five babies this year.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

One of Fitting’s personal favorite parts of the Zoo is devoted to overlooked but important species. “I love the Insectarium,” he said. “So much energy is put on vertebrates but we have the largest insectarium in he west. Most animals on the planet do not have backbones so it helps us connect our visitors to the biodiversity of the amazing world we live in.” The building, opened in 1979, is still regarded as one of the best of its kind.

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

One of the challenges of the zoo is dealing with aging facility. “Almost everything at the Zoo was originally built in the 1930s so we have to deal with infrastructure originally built in the 1930s,” Fitting explained. “We start doing excavations and find things that we don’t know what the heck they are.” Also, the Zoo tries to address the concerns of critics of zoos. “Not everybody likes a zoo,” he acknowledges. “However, most of our animals are captive born. They all are given top notch care and serve as important ambassadors to their relatives around the glob. We are a window into the wild world.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo is constantly building new and better animal habitats. “We are transforming our former polar bear habitat into a space for three black bear brothers who are part of the federal government breeding program,” Fitting commented. “Next year we will begin opening our chimpanzee and orangutan facilities. We have massive buildings so we’re retrofitting them to make them perfect for these apes. We’re creating big dayrooms and two story facilities to connect rotating habitats. We’re quadrupling the space both physically and vertically for the chimpanzees and are going to give them much more enrichment. Phase I is chimpanzees and Phase II is orangutans. We haven’t had orangutans for decades. These complex habitats are the future.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Additionally the San Francisco Zoo is going to have a much stronger commitment to protecting the coasts. “We are adding a four C to our mission: coastal,” Joe Fitting explained. “Next to us for a long time was an abandoned, boarded up facility that used to be the largest saltwater pool in the world. A few years ago it burned down and no one knew what to do to with it. The structure was on the side looking towards the ocean so now we can actually see the coast. We decided to use this as an opportunity to have a stronger commitment to the coast. We have unrestricted access to the coast and three marine sanctuaries on it. The diversity of life on our coast is amazing and two thirds of the world is made up with by oceans.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

“We have established a coastal conservation center which will be used to teach people to monitor the coast and all the pressures we face,” Fitting elaborated. “It will also help our visitors learn about these amazing marine sanctuaries. For example, we’re going to monitor sea traffic. We’re using an app called Ship Finder to do it. We’re working with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association on this site. We will have binocular scopes to monitor wildlife. We’ll also be able to look at sand under microscope and learn about coastal issues, sea level rise and climate change. It’s going to be called the NOAA Centennial Site Program.”

@ Scott Richardson

“We’re really plugging into the coastal connection, which is exciting,” he continued. “We can now talk about 2/3s of the world! from here you can see 20 miles of unobstructed coast. This will be a portal into the marine sanctuaries and the coastal community. Kids will be looking under microscopes and through binoculars learning. There will be a shark app which locals great white sharks. Through technology we’ll be connecting kids to these amazing zones and using tools to educate them. We’re going to show them science is real.”

@ Marianne Hale, San Francisco Zoo

Having been there for almost four decades, Joe Fitting takes great pride in the San Francisco Zoo. “Everybody who works here is committed to the mission,” he reflected. “We all want to feel we can make a difference and can shape the way people behave and interrelate with the world. I think we work very hard to do that. The hardest part is dealing with people who come into the park with other interests. They might want to damage the park or make sure everyone else has a bad day. What I love is seeing people connect with our park, gardens, animals and programs. We connect families and kids to the amazing diversity of life on this planet.”

@ Joe Fitting

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