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Monday, February 27, 2017

Zoo Review: San Diego Zoo, Part II

Today we continue the exploration of the World Famous San Diego Zoo, begun yesterday.

One of the first exhibit areas that many guests encounter are the reptiles.  Most zoos have a reptile house - San Diego has one too.  It also has an entire reptile region.  Walking around the perimeter of the open-air Reptile House, visitors can observe a variety of species, from the familiar - Komodo dragon, Indian cobra - to the more elusive, such as Kaiser newts and Ethiopian mountain vipers.  The Reptile House is actually one of three here at the zoo - there are two others nearby, one featuring native Californian species (I was especially impressed with the horned lizards), another displaying amphibians of the world.  Scattered around the three buildings are outdoor enclosures of larger reptiles (well, not all of them larger than the Komodos) such as Galapagos tortoises, Burmese mountain tortoises, and Cuban iguanas.  A series of crocodilian pools frames out the trail, including Chinese alligators and slender-snout crocodiles.

Near the reptiles is the Children's Zoo, home to a petting barn area, an insect house, and habitats for several small mammals, such as naked mole rats, North American porcupine, and fennec foxes.  Animal encounters abound here - it was here that I was able to see a living pangolin for the first time, though that individual has, sadly, since passed.  There are also playgrounds and a 4D theater.  More animal presentations can be seen nearby in the Wegeforth Bowl.

About half of the zoo grounds are taken up by The Lost Forest, a massive complex of intertwining paths snaking through dense vegetation that features animals of the rainforests.  The entryway lies near the zoo's entrance, passing between two of the zoo's most memorable sights - a raucous flock of nesting flamingos and an enormous, towering Ficus tree, as much a landmark of the zoo as many of the animals that live here.  It's easy to get lost on these winding trails, as they split and regroup unexpectedly.  In part, this occurs when one path goes to follow a ground-level route, while the other takes to the canopy to observe birds and primates among the branches.  This is the heart of the zoo's primate collection, and mandrills, guenons, and capuchins can be seen along the trail.  Non-primates include duikers, Visayan warty pigs, and pygmy hippos, the later sharing their home with cheeky Wolf's guenons who aren't above hitching a ride on the hippos' backs.  The largest primate exhibits are for the great apes.  Gorillas and bonobos (also called "pygmy chimpanzees") can be found on the trails; elsewhere, Sumatran orangutans share a towering climbing structure with a family of siamangs.

I mentioned that it's easy to get lost, but no matter which way you go on these trails, you'll find something.  In my case, I wandered down a side-trail that turned into Tiger River, home to many of Southeast Asia's most spectacular creatures.  Along the water course, I encountered fishing cats peering from within hollow logs, a Malayan tapir splashing in a pool, and gharials bobbing in the water, watching visitors eye-to-eye.  Several bird exhibits also lined the path, including one massive aviary that held rarely-seen Storm's storks.  Another seldom-seen exhibit animal: giant coconut crabs!  It was the tigers that held the attention of most visitors, however, and the big striped cats live in a densely planted yard with a waterfall-fed pool. 

Asia gives way to Africa as the trail leaves the tigers and enters Ituri Forest, featuring animals of the Congo.  Okapi are the first animals that visitors meet, with the path then turning into a overlook of a pool of hippos.  The hippos are visible from underwater viewing windows; they can be a little hard to spot sometimes through the crowds of fish, but as soon as they approach the window, be prepared to be engulfed in an enormous, camera-happy crowd.  Down the path from the hippos is one of the coolest mixed-species exhibits I've ever seen.  African buffalo (of the red forest subspecies) chew their cuds placidly while monkeys and spot-necked otters frolic about.  A bridge cuts through the exhibit, with the buffalo confined to one portion, the monkeys and otters having access to both sides.  Among the primates are Allen's swamp monkeys, which sometimes join the otters in the pool and swim past the underwater windows.  The trail empties out at the bottom of the zoo, near pools patrolled by pelicans and saddle-billed storks.

Scattered among the rainforest exhibits are three walk-through aviaries, ranging from big to gigantic.  Scripps Aviary houses African birds, Owens Aviary featured Australasian ones, and the smaller Parker Aviary has South American species.  Between them are smaller exhibits for other birds, including the zoo's astonishing collection of birds-of-paradise.

Too tired to make your way back to the entrance?  The zoo is willing to give you a lift... literally.  A Skyfari tram sweeps visitors across the zoo, providing panoramic views of the park.  An even more beautiful view of the zoo - and one far less traveled - is in the lushly planted Fern Valley, a winding pathway through a jungle of vegetation.  It can be somewhat steep and there are no animals, so visitors don't wander here as much, but that makes it all the more soothing and peaceful after a hectic day of exploring the zoo.

As if San Diego Zoo didn't have enough to boast about, it's about to get even bigger.  As a 100-Year Birthday gift to itself, the zoo is preparing to unveil Africa Rocks, an exhibit area larger than many zoos.  Among its occupants, visitors will find African penguins (currently in temporary quarters in the Children's Zoo), leopards, red ruffed lemurs, hamadryas baboons, and honey badgers, among other species. 

What more can be said about the zoo?  It's extraordinary.  If it has a weakness, it's its own success.  The zoo is so popular that even with its tremendous size, it can get very crowded, which makes it difficult to have the intimate moments with animals that you can experience at smaller zoos.  In the case of its larger mammal residents, it's hard not to draw unfavorable comparisons with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, located just to the north in Escondido.  There's nothing wrong with the Zoo's exhibits... but if you're going to do both, I would definitely come here first.  After seeing rhinos, giraffes, and other large mammals in sweeping vistas, the somewhat conventional exhibits here may seem somewhat of a let-down. 

When all is said and done, there is nothing to say about the zoo - both the grounds and animals and its place in the world - other than "excellent."  San Diego Zoo Global (the combination of the zoo, the park, and their conservation programs around the globe) is one of the most prominent zoos on earth working to beat back the sixth extinction.  They've been involved in numerous projects around the world, ranging from spear-heading captive-breeding and reintroduction programs (their work with Hawaiian birds has been especially impressive) to restoring habitats to researching ways to lessen human-animal conflict around the globe.  I find their commitment to their own staff to be especially impressive in the fields of employee mentoring, wellbeing, and professional growth.

As San Diego Zoo turns 101 this year, its staff can take pride in knowing that they've fulfilled Harry Wegeworth's dream of creating a world-class zoo that is a leading light for wildlife conservation.

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