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?
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.
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.
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.
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/.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org