Select a Zoo



Right from the beginning when I scheduled my California zoo tour I decided to spend two days at San Diego Zoo. The decision to reserve one full day for the Lost Forest was not made before I entered the Zoo yesterday. But it was a good decision, especially because today is less, and I mean less!, crowded. Yesterday was memorial day with many people enjoying their day off at the Zoo, so today it is my turn to enjoy this famous zoo.biggrin

Getting around in the Zoo
There are elevators and escalators to allow the visitors to avoid the sloping footpaths and cover the altitude differences in the Zoo easily. Long distances can be covered by the Sky Safari cable car and open top double decker buses.

Lost Forest
Orangutan environmental enrichmentSo where to start? Well, after the entrance I just go straight ahead to the orangutans. They have both orangutan subspecies on display, three Sumatran and one old female Bornean (born around 1962). The Zoo keeps them together in one enclosure and do not breed them. Karen the female Sumatran orangutan made the news in 1994 as the first zoo orangutan to undergo open-heart surgery. The orangutans are housed together with siamangs. According to a zookeeper the male siamang, though smaller in size, acts as if he is the boss and the enclosure is his territory and the orangutans are intruders. The siamangs are a couple since 1987, and together they have parented seven babies. The enclosure has got a large viewing window along the total length of the exhibit. A few trees and shrubs enhance the enrichment of bamboo poles and ropes, next to some trees of metal poles. Thus, the animals are encouraged to climb and express natural behaviour like nest building. Additional enrichment is provided by the termite mound that is filled everyday with treats such as barbecue sauce and baby food. To reach these delicacies they had to learn to use sticks, like in real nature.

As I didn't have enough time yesterday for a good look at both the Owens and the Parker Aviary I pay these walk-through aviaries another visit. It turns out they have a different geographical focus. Owens is focussed on south-east Asia and the Malay archipelago, while the Parker Aviary mainly contain bird species from South America, and a few species from New Guinae/Australia such as the fawn-breasted bowerbird (Chlamydera cerviniventris). Another walk-through aviary is the Scripps Aviary, which is focussed on African bird species. All aviaries in the Lost Forest area are huge and allow free flight.

Then I retrace a few of my steps back to the enclosure with the eastern black-and-white colobus monkey and black mangabeys. Here they have used the hilly grounds of the Zoo's location to build an interesting set of multilevel walkways. With the tiger trail going under the monkey trail for instance, and there's a balcony walkway that allows viewing from an interesting angle at the monkey enclosure. It is not clear to me whether the monkey species really share the exhibit at the same time or if they rotate the animals to provide environmental enrichment (by scent) in addition to the artificial climbing facilities.

wolfs guenon mixed speciesAdjacent, a mixed species exhibit comprises red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius ascanius), lesser spot-nosed guenon (Cercopithecus petaurista), Wolf's guenon (Cercopithecus wolfi wolfi) and mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx). The enclosure construction is similar as the one with the colobus monkey and mangabey, but larger, while on one side the fence is completely hidden by bamboo foliage.

Another enclosure with Wolf's guenon is much nicer, because it contains all the ingredients of their original habitat with jungle features such as trees, multilevel undulating grounds, a canyon-like stream. A specialty is the fact that the guenon share the exhibit with pygmy hippopotamuses that have access to the pool with many fish.

The red-cheeked gibbon would appreciate a higher enclosure I assume. It is strange that these tree-dwelling apes, that reside high up in the canopy in the wild, have a lower roof than all other primates. Except for the ones that live in an open top enclosure like the siamang, another gibbon subspecies.

An absolutely gorgeous exhibit is the one for the bonobo troop. At least 9 bonobos occupy a canyon-like enclosure with several waterfalls and a stream. This could the bonobos remind of the rainforest of Democartic Republic of Congo, the only place in the world – south of the Congo River and north of the Kasai River – where they can still be found in the wild. There are excellent views from the main viewing area on the animals against the backdrop of the rock face rear wall. The latest bonobo baby was born in 2007.

It is notable that the Zoo decided not to develop monkey islands as modern bar-less landscape immersion exhibit, while many zoos modernise by introducing such island exhibits for primate species. I must admit that these facilities are not inferior to the island design, absolutely not.

Gorilla enclosureThe gorilla enclosure is really great. On one side there are so many waterfalls that it is hard to have a conversation. One part of the outdoor enclosure is bordering the glass window viewing theatre, while the rest is nicely hidden from the inquisitive eyes of the visitors.

To ensure that I miss nothing I go back where I left the tiger trail and start following that one again. Via a trail partly sheltered by foliage I arrive at the fishing cat enclosure that provide several levels and a big waterfall and pool. The few hiding places and minimal vegetation does not necessarily resemble the cat's original habitat, although fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands. They are typically found in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove areas and are more scarce around smaller, fast-moving watercourses. The cat is in a very good condition, in other words it is very fat!

While getting closer to the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), the trail runs through an area that resembles a rainforest because of the valley in which it is situated and because the sun is blocked by the foliage of the trees, which filters the light. The tiger enclosure itself is situated uphill and comprises a few trees (not protected from scratching behaviour), a stream and a pool close to the visitor's side. The only tiger on display is very restless, but that is probably due to the approaching lunch.

Strangely, opposite the tiger exhibit the pygmy marmosets from South America are housed. This appears to be an opportunistic way of zookeeping, a left-over spot perhaps, but from the perspective of educational value it is a strange message.

View from treetops cafeIn the Lost Forest the main footpath – called easy street as it is the easiest way going uphill – leads to the Treetops cafe, from where you have a magnificent view on large parts of the Zoo. From easy street trails start with names like Tiger trail, Hippo trail and Monkey trail, based on their main destinations. A combination of these trails, of which some parts are sloping or have some serious staircases along the way, allows you to see all of this magnificent part of San Diego Zoo. And yes, I do prefer the Lost Forest above the other areas of the Zoo. Mainly because it is built according more modern design, taking into account the needs of the animals and landscape immersion principles.

Information at the Zoo
Signage – information panels: very brief but to the point info, nothing being said about nutritional needs and foraging behaviour

One of the highlights of San Diego Zoo, I think, is the mixed species exhibit at the end of the Hippo trail, or the beginning as it depends on where you start of course. This magnificent enclosure with African species provides great environmental enrichment simply because of its design alone. An elevated walkway runs through it with on one side a swamp area and on the other side a pond both on ground level, accessible for Allen's swamp monkey, Schmidt's red-tailed monkey and African spotted-necked otter. There is a waterfall originating at another large pond, and there's another part on higher grounds where red river hogs and forest buffalo roam around. I thought the enclosure was especially otter-friendly, but as far as I could tell, the monkeys – who have mirrors as enrichment tools – could venture to the higher grounds as well. This means that only the hoofed species do not have access to all parts of the exhibit, because they can't go to the lower pond and swamp area. Nevertheless, the interaction possibilities, via encounters or just scent, makes this a challenging enclosure for all I would say (see video). By the way, I don't expect the otter to seek contact with the ungulates. It is a very agile swimmer, but its large webbed feet makes it very clumsy on land – in its original habitat in Africa it will rarely go far from the river bank. It's a pity the otter is the sole representative of its kind, because these African spotted-necked otters are very social and in the wild they normally live in packs that may include as many as twenty animals, but on average no more than about five1.

Hippopotamus pondThe official destination of the Hippo trail is of course the hippopotamus enclosure. A very large pool with crystal clear water and a few fish, where the two hippos and their offspring, the youngster born on 26.01.2011, can swim and wade to their heart's content. The young hippo will be moved to Los Angeles Zoo shortly, according to a zookeeper. The underwater viewing opportunities are excellent and extensive, alongside the pool.

After walking up to the upper Sky Safari station and having a quick look at the polar bears again, I take the cable car down to visit the part of the Zoo I have neglected so far. The Discovery Outpost with the Zoo's reptiles section. The views from the cable car are beautiful, and it allows you to better appreciate the differences in altitude of the Zoo premises. The Reptile House, besides Komodo dragon, has a large and diverse collection of venomous and non-venomous snakes and other reptiles. Especially species you do not see often in zoos, such as king cobra, West-African dwarf crocodile, Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis), Ethiopian mountain viper (Bitis parviocula), and Jerdon's pit viper (Protobothrops jerdonii). All of these species are on display in typical and rather small vivariums you'll see in many zoos today, still. There is one odd thing, because in this row of vivariums there is also a ridiculously small enclosure for a Komodo dragon. Hopefully, this is a temporarily solution, because there is a large enclosure, with woodchip bedding and bamboo bushes, outside the Reptile House for a Komodo dragon as well. Last but not least there's an exhibit with California native reptile species, and a huge exhibit with all different kinds of giant tortoise species from the Galapagos Islands.


The sheer size of the place, the number of species and the landscape immersion with many surprises around every corner makes this an impressive zoo. Nevertheless, on my first day when I visited all of the exhibit areas north from center street and park way – Urban Jungle, Outback, Africa Rocks, Elephant Odyssey, Northern Frontier, Panda Trek and Panda Canyon – I felt that the Zoo could do with some restructuring there. Because especially the Urban Jungle was just an endless row of, mostly large, enclosures without a clear grouping of their collection. I could not become enthusiastic about the Big Cat trail, with its small enclosures, while the size of the herds of most of the hoofed species should be enlarged in my opinion to improve their welfare and allow them to show natural behaviour. This would require enlargement of their exhibits as well of course, but that would require a decision to reduce the number of species on display. Well, I am in favour of the latter, but it's easier said than done. At the same time the Zoo should be given credits for opening the Safari Park in Escondido in 1972, because that is how a Zoo should look like in my honest opinion.

On my second day, I got a different impression of the Zoo when I strolled through the Lost Forest – a very green area on the hilly grounds of Balboa Park with a surprising layout and modern state-of-the-art exhibits. Most of the animals had ample opportunity to hide from the public if they wanted to, while I could wander around via sheltered paths and sometimes enjoy the peaceful setting of the jungle-like environment. In other words, I highly recommend the Lost Forest as the main attraction of San Diego Zoo.

In general I noticed that they don't have many specimens of most species on display, which doesn't mean that there could be more specimens off-exhibit for instance for breeding purposes. Of course there are exceptions, such as large numbers of tufted capuchin, gorilla, bonobo, Speke's gazelle in the mixed species exhibit, and Maasai giraffe. Another remarkable thing for such a zoo with so much space and many species is that they have no Amphibians on display. At least, I haven't seen them.

1 Otters – ecology, behaviour and conservation by Hans Kruuk, 2008

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map


"Tiger map" (CC BY 2.5) by Sanderson et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mission regarding breeding endangered species, nature conservation, biodiversity and education, which of course relates to the evolution of species.
Follow me on: