The San Diego Zoo is an iconic, award-winning, world famous zoo. Established in 1916, situated in the mesmerizing Balboa Park and home to over 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies, the zoo is also known for having one of the largest zoological membership associations in the world – almost a half million people! It was also the primary pioneer in the concept of open-air, cageless zoo exhibits (that simulate natural animal habitats) – much like you would find in our very own National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, aka Pretoria Zoo.
Having originally grown out of the abandoned exotic animal exhibitions of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, these days the San Diego Zoo sprawls across an area covering 40 hectares (about half of Pretoria Zoo’s size) of Balboa Park, and is jam packed with the most remarkable, carefully crafted and maintained enclosures, exhibits, walkways and gardens.
As an addition to exploring the park on foot, the zoo also offers a pretty neat, open air guided bus tour that traverses about 75% of the park, as well the Skyfari – an overhead gondola lift that gives you an aerial view of the park down below.
The exhibits are all designed around particular habitats, which then groups together animals that tend to be found side-by-side in the wild, usually alongside with that habitat’s native plant life. For example, there were the gorillas in an African rain forest, polar bears in the Arctic taiga and tundra, and elephants and giraffes on dusty African plains.
Massive free-flight aviaries are littered about, and on top of all that, the zoo also maintains its grounds as an arboretum, with a botanical collection that includes more than 700,000 exotic plants!
The animals, the crafted environment, all of it just comes together to form an absolutely breathtaking zoo experience, a place where you can happily spend pretty much an entire day (which essentially I did) moving through the various habitats and exploring all the nooks and crannies of this wondrous zoo.
So a quick rundown of the current exhibits then: Monkey Trails and Forest Tales (monkeys and other animals from the rainforests of Asia and Africa), Owens Aviary and Scripps Aviary (tropical and local birdlife), Panda Canyon (pandas, takins and snow leopards from China), Urban Jungle (giraffes, gazelles, cheetahs and Indian rhinos), Polar Bear Plunge (polar bears, reindeer and foxes of the Arctic), Discovery Output (lizards, snakes, turtles and frogs), Ituri Forest (okapi, duikers and hippos from the rainforests of central Africa), Elephant Odyssey (elephants, lions and jaguars), Gorilla Tropics (gorillas!), Absolutely Apes (orangutans and siamangs), Sun Bear Forest (Bornean sun bears, macaques and silvery lutung monkeys), Tiger Rivers (tigers and gharials of Malaysia), Outback (koalas, wombats and tasmanian devils), and the newly opened African Rocks – which unfortunately was still being built when I was there but which is a massive new addition to the zoo, featuring a variety of distinct African biospheres and the animals that they contain.
While not a massive fan of zoos or aviaries in general, I do understand the need for zoos and enjoy zoos which are really well put together – and in that regard the well financed San Diego definitely does not disappoint. Everything is colourful, the grounds are immaculate, the animals are all well looked after, and as a bonus, I saw loads of creatures that I would almost assuredly never encounter back here in South Africa.
A thoroughly enjoyable visit then, and just as it had been with my visit to Disneyland, I kind of really wished that I had my girls with me in order to show them around this remarkable space!
(Remember how I said that my phone was charging hence the distinct lack of photos of Balboa Park in general? Yeah well, I took a LOT of photos in the zoo!)