On April 22, people across the world planted trees, cleaned up garbage and celebrated the planet with dance and musical performances. Even Google honored Earth Day, with turtle, fox and octopus “Google doodles” to greet visitors to their site. But to Amy Gotliffe, the conservation director at the Oakland Zoo, Earth Day is not just a fleeting date.
“It may sound cliché,” said Gotliffe, “but every day is Earth Day to me, and many people here. But it’s a wonderful opportunity to really acknowledge it and draw attention to everything that’s going on in the Bay Area and all over the world to help animals.”
The Oakland Zoo’s Earth Day celebration took place the following day, on Saturday, April 23. Thousands of visitors flooded through the park’s gates, their cars lining the parking lots and grass fields around the zoo. Representatives from dozens of other organizations, like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, stationed themselves at strategic places around the park to give visitors pamphlets and information about their respective causes.
Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin. He hoped that by raising public consciousness about pollution, all kinds of environmental protection issues would make their way onto the larger political agenda. Today, 46 years later, it is celebrated internationally, in more than 150 countries.
The zoo’s event was sponsored by Taiwan—The Heart of Asia, which is part of a new branding promotion by the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau. Members of the tourism bureau were passing out brochures and chatting with families. “We are here to promote Taiwan, because we think Taiwan is a great place, with beautiful nature and a lot of different species of animals,” said Emily Chen, deputy director of the bureau’s San Francisco office. She was standing alongside the enclosure for the sun bear, a small black bear ambling along in the long green grass inside the fenced-in area. The sun bear is one of the reasons for Taiwan’s budding relationship with the Oakland Zoo: both have been working towards conservation efforts for the species—also called the Malayan bear—and its endangered cousin the moon bear, which both can be found in Taiwan.
“They’re just a wonderful organization. It’s a beautiful country,” said Gottlife of the tourism bureau. “We’ve been creating a really lovely relationship.” Now that the campaign has become a zoo sponsor, she said, the campaign has begun to donate to Animals Asia, a group that works to end bile farming in China and Vietnam. Bile farming is a practice in which moon bears—so named for the crescent-shaped marking on their chest—are kept in small cages while bile is taken out of their gall bladders, killing the animals for the bile that is used for medicinal purposes.
Down the hill from Chen was a large grassy meadow, with families sprawling around a giant swing structure anchored in the center of the field. At noon, a group of pre-teen and teenage girls from Trapeze Arts Inc.—a circus arts school in West Oakland—performed for Earth Day visitors, gracefully knotting themselves in and out of the heavy-duty ribbons draping down from the structure’s top bar. After half an hour of contortionist-esque dancing up and down the ribbons, the four oldest girls performed their final act to a song from The Lion King, a nod to the theme of the day.
Guests came for all sorts of reasons, but ultimately the zoo is a haven for families.
“My favorite part is that we have the opportunity to bring the children and not only enjoy, but participate in celebrating our Earth,” said Ana Anguas-Wong, who was there with her two daughters, Maya and Anya. “We have done so much to it—and it’s too little that we are doing to protect and conserve the animals and actually make it a real habitat for us.”
Rebecca Calderon, a student from Napa Valley College, was there to spend time with family and to observe giraffes as part of a school project. “We’re all here for one cause, and it’s the Earth,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t pay attention to it as much as we should. And I feel like Earth Day is one day where we can be more aware of it and know what’s going on in our Earth and how to keep it safe, keep it clean.”
When visitors come to the zoo, they expect to see large, imposing and imported animals like the tigers, giraffes and lions. But, Gotliffe said, they also get excited to see lizards and birds and squirrels, too. She hopes people can learn to appreciate the local wildlife that can be encountered in their own backyards. “We are hoping they can make a transfer of information,” she said, “to their own habitats where they live.”