I have heard about the San Diego Zoo for my whole life but had never been there. In part that reflects a preference to see “the real thing” in the “real world”. I have been fortunate to have traveled to wild places with wild birds and wild animals. I remembered visits almost 60 years ago to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where I grew up. While I have have forgotten the animals I saw there, I do remember the cages – the cells – steel bars, concrete and little else. I knew that much had changed and zoos were much more humane (“animalane?”). Now there were exhibits with open space, plants and water features etc. I had seen this to some degree at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. If these changes in attitude and treatment had not been made, I would not have gone to the San Diego Zoo at all. I was also aware of the role that zoos play including especially the San Diego Zoo in research and in breeding programs to sustain endangered animals. I wanted to see what many consider one of the best zoos in the world.
Rarely do experiences greatly exceed expectations. Never has an experience exceeded expectation like this visit to the San Diego Zoo did. It was marvelous. We thought it might be a three hour visit. Seven hours after arriving, we were still going strong and there was a great amount that we did not see. We easily could have filled another day. Let me get the one complaint out of the way now. Everything else will be super positive. The complaint is that the maps and signage are challenging at best. We were often confused as to where we were in relation to where we wanted to go and had little sense of the best way to get anywhere. This was not helped by many construction projects and resulting detours, but completion of those projects will undoubtedly be great additions, so really no problem there.
The Zoo Map – Colorful but Confusing in Use
That’s it – the only negative. Now for the positives. There seemed to be docents everywhere – helpful, knowledgeable, informative, personable, clearly enjoying there work. They helped overcome some of the negative impact of the signage issue. Indeed, there should have been a suggestion on the maps in bold print: “Just ask a docent.” Entrance to the Zoo was expensive and there were many possible added costs for private tours, bus tours, tram tours, skyway tours etc. There were also many souvenir chops with mostly quality goods priced accordingly. And many food places to spend money as well. BUT…the parking was great and free – a rarity in the world these days. The food was actually quite good, very diverse and given a trapped audience even reasonably priced. (I wonder what a hot dog went for at the recently concluded Super Bowl.) Something that was apparent every minute was how well the entire facility was cleaned, maintained and presented. We saw workers polishing metal work, sweeping, and cleaning everywhere – unobtrusively and with obvious results.
Zoo statistics are amazing. The Zoo alone (there is a much larger Safari Park 30 miles north of downtown San Diego) is set on 100 acres within Balboa Park – itself a treasure. There are more than 500,000 members including 130,000 children. ALL expenses and all capital costs are covered by donations – admissions fees and profits from sales go to research and the animals themselves. There are more than 3500 animals representing more than 650 species and subspecies. The botanical collection is more than 700,000 exotic plants. EVERY animal we saw looked healthy and every compound was clean. Animals were not entirely free to roam wherever but there seemed to be plenty of room and we observed no nervous pacing. To anthropomorphize a bit, the animals seemed “happy”.
To fully describe and catalog our day would take many pages and many hours. I took almost a thousand photos on our visit – dozens of some animals, just a few of others and none at all of many. I have chosen some favorites to focus the rest of this blog post. Often you cannot tell that the animals were behind glass, bars or fences as my camera sometimes focused without the hindrance, but be assured that except for the birds in the aviaries, all were safely separated from us. It was just at times – and happily so – that it did not feel that way.
Before focusing on the animals, I need to make a comment about one docent in particular. We firsts approached here asking for directions and like happened with many other docents there, we were soon in a long conversation. It turned out that this lady – perhaps two or three years younger than I am, grew up a few miles away from where I did in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. – most specifically Silver Spring and Takoma Park. She went to a rival high school and knew many of the places that were important in my youth – at a much simpler time in our country’s history. Small world indeed.
We had not set a basic plan for what to see, but knew we wanted to see Koalas, Orangutans, Gorillas, Big Cats, Elephants, the aviaries and the Pandas. Otherwise we would take things as they came to us – feasting on the next exhibit and then the next and so on. I had great wildlife viewing experiences in Africa, South America, Australia and India and was curious how seeing some familiar animals in a Zoo context would feel. Not the same as those real world experiences but pretty good and better than I expected.
I did not keep notes to show photos and discuss animals in the order we saw them. The following photos are arranged in two large groups – mammals (in this post) and birds (separately in a following one) – and then by similar types. It was a lot of fun.
Koalas – I had seen a few of these in Australia in 2003. They are always eating as it takes a lot of eucalyptus leaves to provide needed nutrients. There were several at the Zoo – all munching away or resting between bites.
Panda – like the Koalas, Pandas are often called bears – but Koalas are not and I see mixed info on the Panda – more appropriately “Giant Panda”. It subsists almost solely on bamboo – eating up to 30 pounds a day. Our Great Panda tied with the African Lion for most disappointing – viewing and activity-wise. Asleep and sprawled on the ground – not very exciting.
Andean Bear – also called a Spectacled Bear, it is the only bear found in the Southern Hemisphere. I had seen one briefly in Argentina more than 30 years ago.
Polar Bear – the largest of all bears and most aquatic and northernmost – we arrived just as a keeper talk was ending and the bear climbed out of its pool – water still dripping from its super thick coat.
Leopard – my favorite animal on my African trips – great closeup looks at the ones at the zoo. There are populations in Africa, India, Asia and the Middle East.
Jaguar – another animal I had been fortunate and privileged to see in the wild in the Pantanal in its native Brazil, the Zoo’s Jaguar paced in its compound inches away behind bars. Incredibly beautiful animal.
Clouded Leopard – a denizen of the Himalayan foothills, I would love to see one in the wild. This one was with its keeper and was a great treat. It is about half the size of its spotted cousin.
Snow Leopard – a big cat of the Himalayas, it can be as big as the African or other spotted leopard cats. An endangered species that I doubt I will ever see – at least in the wild.
Serval – a smaller cat with long legs and long ears, it is found only in Africa (I saw a single one) where its population is stable.
African Lion – as with most of the males I saw in South Africa, this guy was sleeping and flat on the ground. Lions and Tigers (which we did not see at the Zoo) are the biggest cats with big males reaching 400 pounds or more.
Elephants – at the top of Lynette’s list, I hope she gets a chance to see them in the wild someday. The Zoo has both Asian (smaller) and African Elephants (bigger and bigger ears) Having to deal with such large animals, this was probably the largest compound at the Zoo. The elephants were eating – what else.
Rhinoceros – basically an armored tank of an animal, this is a White Rhinoceros – so named not because it is white but because of its “wide” snoot which in Dutch is “veidt” and sounds like white. The Black Rhino is smaller and has a much narrower snoot.
Giraffe – I remember distinctly my first Giraffe in Kenya as it seemed even larger than expected and struck me as graceful and elegant. It was an instant favorite. The Giraffes at the San Diego Zoo are Masai Giraffes from Kenya but the ones I saw there were Reticulated Giraffes – a different species (subspecies?) with a more regular patterning.
Camel – We forget that the camel is a wild animal and not just a pack animal domesticated to serve our needs. It has a reputation as being “nasty” and the one in my photo has that look about it.
Gerenuk – This was another favorite in Africa. I had seen wildlife films where this super slender antelope with the long neck was standing on its rear legs and foraging on leaves on the trees – a great competitive strategy to get food. Seeing one doing exactly that in Africa and then here at the Zoo was extra cool.
Antelopes and Such – I admit to being confused by the various Gazelles, Antelopes, Bucks, Boks and other hooved animals that grace the plains and savannahs of Africa, Asia and India and also the San Diego Zoo. The first photo below is of a Soemmering’s Gazelle and the second is of a Duiker – a much smaller antelope caught here eating a leaf that had fallen from a tree outside of the compound. We watched them chase after and eat each leaf that blew in.
Capybara and Tapir – I saw these South American mammals on my Brazil visit. The former is the largest rodent in the world and the latter, although looking like a pig is actually more closely related to horses and rhinoceroses and spends much of its time in the water – where I saw several.
Dwarf Mongoose and Hyrax – two more mammals I have seen in my journeys in Africa. The Dwarf Mongoose is the smallest predator in Africa and the Rock Hyrax is actually a relative of the Elephant.
Mandrill and Mangabey – this is a face that you gotta love or hate. The Mandrill is the largest of the Old World Monkeys and is also probably the most colorful. I have not seen one in the wild – happy to see one at the Zoo. Less colorful but still striking is the Mangabey a close and rare relative of the Mandrill – also found only in Africa and very rare.
Gorillas and Siamang – Someday I hope to see a Gorilla in the wild – probably in Uganda. The family group at the San Diego Zoo was fun to watch – well mostly the youngster was – as mom and dad were pretty lethargic. In the same compound was another ape, well actually a “lesser ape” – the Siamang, the largest of the gibbons and a native of Asia. I mistook it for a Bonobo which I had hoped to see and somehow was missed.
Orangutans – definitely a must see and someday maybe I will see one in their native lands – the islands of either Borneo or Sumatra. The male ape is unmistakable with its huge head and cheek pads. The youngster is more “human-like” in appearance and seems to be all arms and legs and red hair.
The last mammal to be included is the Maned Wolf. We were able to watch a demonstration with this beautiful canid and two keepers. It looks like a fox but is not and it is not a wolf either. Native to and endangered in South America, it is the largest canid there. Among the fascinating facts about this animal is that when it walks it uniquely moves both legs on the same side together – and not the opposing front and rear leg together as other canids do. When excited the hair on their backs – their manes – stand straight up.
We saw many other animals and I have many more photos but this has run on long enough and I still have another long post to do on the wonderful birds of the San Diego Zoo, so I will end it here. I feel compelled to repeat what I said at the beginning. The San Diego Zoo is marvelous. This post merely catalogs the animals seen and some photos, but the importance of the Zoo is in its role in education and conservation. Literature at the Zoo and online makes that very clear. It was a most enjoyable privilege to visit.