"Something tells me
It's all happening at the zoo
I do believe it
I do believe it's true..."
- Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, "At the Zoo"
I've always known "It's all happening at the zoo." Like
parades, amusement parks, and ice cream trucks, zoos bring out the kid in us.
And the San Diego Zoo is one of the world's best. A sprawling 100 acres, the
award-winning zoo is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals
representing more than 800 species and subspecies. It also boasts a botanical
collection of more than 700,000 exotic plants.
The temperate climate of San Diego makes this world-class facility a
pleasure to visit year-round. Some of the most popular exhibits include Tiger
River (a quarter-acre big cat rain forest with a 16,000-gallon crocodile pool),
Gorilla Tropics (2.5-acre primate habitat teamed with 90-foot-high enclosed
Scripp's Aviary and its many bird species), Polar Bear Plunge (4.4-acre Arctic
tundra exhibit, and with a cool pool and underwater polar bear viewing), and, of
course, the Giant Panda Research station (home to the zoo's most visible media
stars and one of the world's most closely watched breeding-in-captivity
programs). But hundreds of other animal species are there for the viewing in
quieter corners of the zoo. Two of my favorite exhibits on my last visit were
the East African Kopje and the Intui Forest.
East African Kopje
The arid, rocky hills of the African savanna are replicated in this 30,200 sq.
ft. exhibit. An inhospitable climate, the kopje's secret to life is the way that
the land stores its infrequent rain in nooks and crannies within its granite
bedrock. Periodic downpours seep into cracks that support a unique
plant-and-animal ecosystem. A downpour comes, followed by months without rain,
baking the flatlands dry. But the trees and perennials have adapted to finding
water in the cracks of the rock. These plants support the herbivores (antelope,
insects, birds), which in turn support the kopje's carnivores, from wily
mongooses to swift cheetahs.
This exhibit is home to the rock-dancing klipspringer, a diminutive,
athletic antelope that can leap from a standstill nearly 10 feet straight up
and land with all four tiny hooves on a spot the size of a silver dollar. This
agility enables the gentle herbivores to spring from one rock outcropping to
another, avoiding predation by the eagles, jackals, pythons, and big cats of
Near the African Kopje is the Elephant Mesa, and one of the zoo's two meerkat
exhibits (the other one is in the Children's Zoo). These diurnal mongoose
relatives enjoyed a big boost in popularity after the cartoon meerkat Timon
captivated viewers in "The Lion King." When Animal Planet network released their
Meerkat Manor reality TV show, these engaging little creatures assumed an
almost rock-star status.
This 4-acre exhibit replicates an African rain forest, complete with a
150,000-gallon hippo pool through which the giant mammals can be viewed in
their surprisingly graceful underwater antics. Here, too, are monkeys, otters,
and the striped-legged okapi. The okapi is a strange-looking animal, an
apparent collection of "leftover parts" God had on hand the day He
finished making the animals. Its head resembles a giraffe, its legs look like a
zebra, and its dark blue tongue is like that of a chow chow dog. Its ears are
enormous in proportion to its head, and its tongue is long and prehensile,
enabling it to grasp foliage and strip leaves off. It's hard not to smile when
you see such an unusual animal.
This exhibit is modeled after a real Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic
of Congo. The exhibit includes two full-sized replicas of homes such as those
inhabited by the Mbuti tribe, native to that region.
Going to the Zoo
It's easy to spend an entire day wandering the miles of trails at the San Diego
Zoo. Of course, services are provided for those guests who are disabled or who
prefer not to walk so far, including a bus tour and an overhead tram, both of
which are good ways to get a feeling for the zoo's layout before beginning your
rambles. San Diego's temperate climate makes the zoo and its sister facility
the San Diego Wild Animal Park great places to visit any time of year.
The San Diego Zoo is located just north of downtown San Diego in Balboa
Park. For more information, go to http://www.sandiegozoo.org/.
Sally O'Neal hikes, bikes, and enjoys wild and domestic animals from her home base in Washington State. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.