Santiago Zoo

A day at the Zoo

June 2006

There ain't much worse than an unhappy wild animal. Unless, of course, it's in a zoo. Being taunted by a gaggle of fat kids. And one of the kids is throwing a spat-out chewing gum through the rusty chain fence.

Talk about alienation from species-being. If these beasts wanted to sulk, they'd want to sulk on a wide plain, a lush savannah where they could run 20 miles without coming up against a bored couple pausing between amorous gropes to point a digital camera in their face.

Santiago Zoo is stuck on the side of Cerro San Cristobal, in Parque Metropolitano. Past street vendors hawking photos of a llama with a tiny cowboy hat, the zoo reaches up the hill in jilted stages. The dirty penguin pool sits below the tired tigers, next to a sordid family of flamingos standing dozen-abreast in a tiny hole. All are plomped on the hill as if by accident. The steepness makes you think of some weird Inca getaway where they managed to gather together all Earthly creations and stuck them on mountain terraces.

With an ISIC card, it's a tidy two bucks to get in, which of course is cheap for the 200 species on offer. Then you see how much your dollar can buy. Most online reviews of the zoo aren't that too flattering, so you should know what to expect. One site lamely states: "The zoo gets a negative review, but it does have local animals." (

That's a sorry excuse. Just because they're local doesn't mean they should have to put up with this kind of internment. Small boxes for pens, cloudy muck-stained water for the seals circling endlessly to the dumb joy of children banging on the glass. Some animals are positively morose. With a great view atop the hill, overlooking the smog hugging the city, they gaze out listlessly, trying to ignore the madding crowd.

Sure, you think, they should all be chillin' thousands of miles away. But hey, all said, it is a zoo. Cages are the name of the game. That's the deal you make. It's not an idyllic oil painting of West African grassland, and it's not an expansive nature reserve. The only ones who look vaguely content are the llama families, who, to be honest, have evolved with this clime, and have perfected the expression of bored apathy anyway.

Indeed…you wake up bleary eyed in your hostel, you've been cavorting through the southern hemisphere, witnessing untold beauty, and you think what the hell, I feel like…looking at an elephant. And there's the beauty in it. It sucks 'cause it's a zoo. You know they don't want to be there, and you don't want them to be there. But where else in the world can you gaze at some yawning lions, turn your head and see a hippo shitting in front of happy families on a daytrip? That's right: another zoo. And you know it won't get too dirty, as cleaners will be right along quick to clean up that hippo shit, lest it irks the tourists.

Another plus: as a zoo, you do get to witness things you might never see again. Opposite a tour group who obviously couldn't care less, there's a majestic chimp walking along upright. A bit awkward and top heavy for sure, but standing up still, for almost a minute. Loping to his hut, grabbing some shoots and meandering back. It was nuts. You don't even see that stuff on the nature channels.

The zoo is open is 10am to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Come for the novelty, but leave with a heavy heart. You'll forget about them after the next mojito, but in years to come these creatures will still be there, swaying aimlessly, staring stupidly, moving only to avoid the spitballs of wanton toddlers.

But still….that elephant….its huge. And baby Alpacas? Now that's a trip.

© Alex Ogle 2006