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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Zoo Review: San Diego Zoo

There are a lot of zoos in the world.  There is only way that is seldom named without the introduction of "World Famous..."

It began, they like to say, with a roar.  In 1916, San Diego physician Dr, Harry M. Wegeworth was driving along the edge of Balboa Park on September day in 1916.  Whatever thoughts were going through his head at that time, they were shattered by an unexpected sound - the roaring of a lion.  The park had been the site of the recent Panama-California Exposition, meant to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.  A variety of animals had been exhibited there, some of which had been abandoned.

Wegeworth turned to his brother, riding in the car with him, and commented, "Wouldn't it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo?  You know... I think I'll start one."

Just over 100 years later, the San Diego Zoo stands out as perhaps the most famous zoo in the world.  Built in the immediate aftermath of the Hagenbeck revolution of zoo design, it was one of the first zoos to pioneer open-air, natural enclosures from its very beginning.  The region's stunning climate allows vegetation from around the world to thrive on zoo grounds, leading to some of the lushest, most well-planted exhibits anywhere (while also providing excellent browsing for herbivorous animals).  That same climate also allows many animals to be exhibited outdoors year round instead of being cooped-up in winter holding barns.  Now located in Balboa Park, the site of the zoo's unanticipated origin, the San Diego Zoo has fulfilled Dr. Harry's (as the staff still refer to him as) dream of a world-class zoo famed around the world.

San Diego has an extraordinary collection, but if there is one animal for which the zoo is best known, it is the koala.  For many years San Diego was the only zoo in the United States to exhibit koalas; joeys produced here have since populated zoos around the country.  To this day, it features the largest collection of koalas outside of Australia.  The marsupials are the stars of the Outback area, nicknamed Koalifornia.  For all of their fame, koalas don't do too much (essentially, they are marsupial sloths), and the koala exhibits (there are several) are basically a row of trees, each with a koala sleeping in it.  Less sought-after but more active exhibits nearby include wallabies, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.  Also found here are several aviaries of gorgeous Australian birds.  Side complaint: San Diego has one of the best bird collections in the world... which made it all the more frustrating to me how hard it was to see any of them clearly, let alone photograph them, through the heavy mesh that their aviaries are built out of.   Hopefully, the zoo will begin the process of switching them out with finer, less visible materials at some point. 

Near the koala building is the zoo's Urban Jungle region, home to some of the most recognizable zoo animals - giraffes, red kangaroos, and Indian rhinoceroses, to name a few.  This is also the permanent home of some of the zoo's animal ambassadors, which are used for meet-and-greets with visitors.  Among the most popular of these are the ambassador cheetahs.  When not out for walks, the cheetahs can be found sprawled out in a grassy yard, sometimes in the company of their companion dogs; signage nearby emphasizes that the dogs are friends, not food, for the spotted sprinters.

Koalas are often erroneously referred to as bears, but the real bears are near by.  Andean bears from South America and grizzly bears from North America inhabit rocky grottos near the zoo's entrance.  These are some of the only original exhibits of the zoo, as much of the rest of the facility is constantly being renovated.  While hardly spectacular compared to many of the newer exhibits, they are still excellent compared to the bear exhibits of many zoos, with rockwork, pools, and even vegetation (how on earth do you keep plants alive in a bear exhibit?  Inquiring minds want to know!).  A third bear species is found further down the trail in Sun Bear Forest with endangered Asian primates - gibbons and lion-tailed macaques - in nearby exhibits.

Yet another bear species is found in Polar Bear Plunge, the big white Arctic bears being perhaps one of the least-expected residents of sunny San Diego.  Don't feel too bad for the bears in the heat, however - they have a vast pool to swim and dive in, with visitors watching them from an underwater viewing gallery.   Caribou occupy a rocky hillside enclosure nearby, while an Arctic marsh aviary is filled with beautiful diving ducks and other birds (also viewable underwater).  What I really enjoyed and appreciated about Polar Bear Plunge, however, was its willingness to explain and explore the leading threat to the animals of display - global climate change.  The phenomena - and what we can do to address it - was highlighted in several fun, easy to understand graphics that encourage interactive learning. 

The zoo's final bears are the only species in the zoo which could challenge the koalas for the title of "Most Popular Zoo Animal."  San Diego is the only zoo in the country to exhibit koalas AND giant pandas, which are on display in Panda Trek.  The line to see the black-and-white bears can be tediously long, all for an animal which, again I'm biased here, doesn't do too much (if I live to be 100, I'll never understand the hype about pandas over all other species).  I was much more interested by the other animals seen along the way - red pandas, for instance (the more engaging of the pandas), or takin, clambering across a boulder-strewn yard, for instance, or beautiful-but-venomous Mangshan vipers, a species that wasn't even known to science when the zoo was founded.   Snow leopards and Amur leopards occupy a series of enclosures on either side of the visitor pathway; the spotted cats can pass from one to the other through a set of overhead passageways, traveling directly above zoo visitors.

Either the pandas or the koalas may be the biggest stars of the zoo.  The biggest animals period are the residents of Elephant Odyssey.  The zoo bills this exhibit as a time-travel back to the California of the Pleistocene, when the Golden State was filled with wondrous beasts, many of which have since vanished.  Besides native Californians, the trail also features the living-descendants (or close approximates) of the animals that once lived here.  You can encounter pronghorn "antelope" in a desert yard, for instance... which they share with camels.  Or see jaguars, which lived in California until quite recently, historically speaking... and next door are the lions, found here prehistorically.  Other occupants of the trail are rattlesnakes, wild horses, sloths, and secretarybirds, as well as a mixed species habitat of guanaco, capybara, and Baird's tapir, the later two often found lounging in their pool.    The Asian elephants here are stand-ins for mammoths and mastodons, and occupy a sprawling yard with pools, shade-structures, and hanging feeders that encourage them to reach up high for food.  Their barn is nearby; unlike many zoo elephant barns, this one is completely on-display, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes peek in how elephants are cared for.  Also on display are California condors, a highly endangered species that was saved from the brink of extinction in large part due to the efforts of the zoo's sister-facility, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Connections to California's past are highlighted with life-sized statues of mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other Pleistocene beasts; a recreation tar pit furthers the experience, and docents are often on-hand with replica fossils.

Scattered among these regions are exhibits for pumas, maned wolves, zebras, peccary, and various antelope, as well as a series of towering aviaries for massive birds of prey - harpy eagles, Steller's sea eagles, and Andean condors among them.

Well, it took me more than one day to cover the zoo, so it'll have to take a second blog post to the cover the zoo and do it any justice.  More details on exploring San Diego Zoo tomorrow!


  1. When exactly did you visit, since the Panda Trek area seems to be under construction right now?

  2. Admittedly it was late last year - I try to review this facilities in the order that I visit them to stay as up-to-date as possible, but sometimes I get a bit of a backlog.