Zoo set to debut largest exhibit yet

Zoo set to debut largest exhibit yet
Years ago, visitors who walked the acres in the far reaches of the zoo did so without shade. Today, rich foliage provides relief from the hot August sun in the area called Elephant Odyssey. (Photo by David Paul Ondash)

 

The San Diego Zoo has come a long way in a hundred years.

It was in 1916 that the Panama California Exposition, held in Balboa Park, closed after a successful run, but what to do with the “leftover” animals?

This view from the Skyfari gondola shows the future Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks exhibit. Mostly dirt piles and earth movers now, these eight acres are being transformed into a $68 million home for African plants and animals. The exhibit, the largest and most expensive one in the zoo, is scheduled to open sometime in 2017. (Photo by E’Louise Ondash)

This view from the Skyfari gondola shows the future Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks exhibit. Mostly dirt piles and earth movers now, these eight acres are being transformed into a $68 million home for African plants and animals. The exhibit, the largest and most expensive one in the zoo, is scheduled to open sometime in 2017. (Photo by E’Louise Ondash)

Fortunately, a renowned local physician who had a long-lived love for animals came up with a plan; Dr. Harry Wegeforth declared that San Diego should have a zoo.
And so the then-humble San Diego Zoo, which now has more species of animals than any zoo in the world, was born. Its coyotes, bears, foxes and a number of other resident animals spent their days in concrete cages lined up along Park Avenue. In today’s zoo, more than 3,700 animals live in open-air enclosures, and more than 700,000 plants and trees grow in what would be a desert environment for animals and humans alike.

The San Diego Zoo began in 1916 as a group of lowly cages spread along Park Avenue. Today, the more than 3,700 animals (more than 660 species, most rare and endangered) reside mostly in open-air environments enhanced by a collection of more than 700,000 plants. (Courtesy photo)

The San Diego Zoo began in 1916 as a group of lowly cages spread along Park Avenue. Today, the more than 3,700 animals (more than 660 species, most rare and endangered) reside mostly in open-air environments enhanced by a collection of more than 700,000 plants. (Courtesy photo)

I confess: it’s been too many years since I visited the San Diego Zoo or first began getting acquainted with its vast collection of animals. (Let’s just say it was sometime in the previous millennium.) A recent visit with a 9-year-old who loves animals (the wolf is his favorite) and likes to hike (thank goodness) was almost like discovering this spectacular menagerie for the first time.

Through the years, the zoo has constantly evolved to provide their animals with upgrades in housing and landscaping, but I admit that I have mixed emotions about zoos. Many do not treat their residents well, and the animals would, I’m sure, rather live in their natural habitats.

But zoos that play by the rules serve an important purpose.

They provide education about wildlife and create sympathy and support for the conservation, preservation and restoration of the animals, their habitats and global ecosystems.  Somehow the conservation of forests seems much more important and real after you’ve come face-to-face with a jaguar or a komodo dragon. Saving the polar ice cap seems more urgent after you’ve watched a polar bear cavort in its enclosure.

For most people, a zoo is as close as they’ll get to these wonderful creatures who are totally dependent on humans for their survival.

Dr. Harry Wegeforth (1882-1941), a San Diego physician, founded the San Diego Zoo to care for animals left over from the 1915-1916 Panama California Exposition. “Dr. Harry,” who traveled the world to acquire more animals, was responsible for convincing the wealthy, local and otherwise to support the zoo. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Harry Wegeforth (1882-1941), a San Diego physician, founded the San Diego Zoo to care for animals left over from the 1915-1916 Panama California Exposition. “Dr. Harry,” who traveled the world to acquire more animals, was responsible for convincing the wealthy, local and otherwise to support the zoo. (Courtesy photo)

The zoo’s biggest exhibit to date is set to open sometime in 2017. Eight acres of barren land and dirt are currently being sculpted by earth movers to create what will be the Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks, a showcase for several of Africa’s diverse habitats: kopjes (small hills), woodlands, highland savanna and tropical forest.

The wildlife to call these areas home include rock hyrax; klipspringers; baboons; leopards; vervet monkeys; sociable weavers; sunbirds; lemurs, southern ratel; fossa; an African leopard; dwarf crocodiles; Agama lizards; and spurred tortoises. Never heard of some of these animals? Come to the zoo and meet them.

Mbongo (top) and Ngagi, both 5 years old in this photo, came to the San Diego Zoo from the Belgian Congo in 1931 - a time when there was little known about gorillas. Those who got to know them said that Ngagi, probably six months older, was more dominant. Mbongo was considered more clever and friendly. Today’s resident gorillas reside in a natural landscape with waterfalls, an open meadow and climbing structures. Both Mbongo and Ngagi are memorialized with bronze sculptures that stand near the entrance of the zoo. (Courtesy photo)

Mbongo (top) and Ngagi, both 5 years old in this photo, came to the San Diego Zoo from the Belgian Congo in 1931 – a time when there was little known about gorillas. Those who got to know them said that Ngagi, probably six months older, was more dominant. Mbongo was considered more clever and friendly. Today’s resident gorillas reside in a natural landscape with waterfalls, an open meadow and climbing structures. Both Mbongo and Ngagi are memorialized with bronze sculptures that stand near the entrance of the zoo. (Courtesy photo)

The stars of the “Rocks” show may be the flock of endangered African penguins, which will reside on the rocky shoreline.

For more information, visit zoo.sandiegozoo.org/.

Tips:
If possible, go early and on a weekday. We did, and even though it was still officially summer, there were almost no lines for the Skyfari, bus rides and concessions.
Unless money is no object, bring food and water. Still want to buy a treat? Be prepared for sticker shock. When you hand over $6 for a soft drink, try to keep in mind that these outrageous prices help feed that cute koala, tough ol’ tortoise and slender-snouted crocodile.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

 

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