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.
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.
So 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.
Adjacent, 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.
The 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.
In the Lost Forest the main footpath — called easy street as it is the easiest way going uphill — leads to the Treetops café, 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.
The 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
Memorial day! You could say bad planning, but so it was. The first day of my visit to San Diego Zoo was on memorial day, and as a consequence there were big crowds. Beforehand I already decided that I needed two days to cover all of what San Diego Zoo had to offer, so, I figured that on my second day it would be more quiet. Thus, when inside I thought it would be better to have my ‘quiet day’ in the Lost Forest and do the other parts on the first day. That meant turning to the right after the entrance and heading for the Urban Jungle, whatever that was.
Urban Jungle and Outback
Walking slowly uphill via center street first a row of similar enclosures appear with in consecutive order, Spectacled (or Andean) bear, spotted hyena, Cape clawless otter (Aonyx capensis capensis), grizzly bear, Ussuri brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus) and Bornean sun bear. These enclosures are bar-less with a deep dry moat at the viewing area, an artificial rock face wall (amphitheatre style) and undulating grounds. All have some specific adaptations to make it more suitable for the species it contain. Some have a waterfall or a pool, luscious vegetation, and tree trunks and a high level resting platform, while others lack vegetation and have no water whatsoever but an additional wire mesh fence (hyena).
The grizzly bears and Ussuri brown bear rotate over two adjacent enclosures. The rotation keeps the environment novel and stimulating for the bears. The two grizzly bears brothers came from the wild in Idaho, outside of Yellowstone Park, where they were taught by their mother to raid campsites for improperly stored food and garbage. They had to be caught and removed, so, they ended up in San Diego Zoo (see video).
This row of predator enclosures is interrupted by four cages that house primates from three different geographical origin. From Africa Schmidt’s red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius schmidti), Debrazza monkey and Kikuyu colobus monkey, from South America tufted capuchin and white-fronted capuchin, and from Asia Francois langur. It is quite weird to discover these four old-fashioned exhibits (cages) with primates in between the predator enclosures.
Besides the already mentioned type of enclosure the sun bears not only have their own ‘trail’ but they have also access to another enclosure that has got more vegetation than the other one, a waterfall and pool and a large cover to provide shade. Sun bears on Borneo (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) are regarded the world smallest bears and are sufficiently different from those on the Asian mainland and Sumatra, representing the typical form (H. m. malayanus), to justify it to be called a subspecies. A little further up, along the sun bear trail, there’s yet another exhibit for the sun bears, and also for the Francois langur. Both exhibits are very much larger than the others. The langur enclosure is erected in steel with mostly window panes all around (very exposed!). There is not a lot of environmental enrichment and it lacks vegetation, while the climbing enrichment is artificial. But next door, another langur enclosure contains natural trees.
At the far end of the Urban Jungle area, close to the Asian Passage — a food court, there’s a beautiful exhibit for lion-tailed macaques (at least 6 specimens). A stream, shrubs, multi-level, little two-story houses with roofs, and ropes. They show a troop that is part of the Zoo’s three dozen specimens colony, that is still expanding and lives off-exhibit at the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES). The Zoo has bred them since 1959 — some individuals in the colony descend from lion-tailed macaques acquired from Prince Rainier of Monaco. The only thing that is not so great about this enclosure is the fact that the animals are very exposed (because all fences and roof consist of wire mesh), but this does not seem to bother the macaques because they really look at ease.
After a quick lunch at the food court I take a right turn and follow the Big Cat Trail back to the Outback area. All the big cat exhibits have a similar construction with vertical metal poles hidden in cement (to hide the original construction material), wire mesh fences on three sides, foliage in different quantities, and a high level ridge on the rear wall. The ridge is sometimes broad enough to serve as a hideout, but it is a good observation post anyhow. In consecutive order I see Amur leopard, puma (cougar), jaguar (a melanistic individual), snow leopard and Siberian lynx (Lynx lynx wrangeli).
Along the big cat trail on the other side of the large through-road (the park way) several of the oldest exhibits of San Diego Zoo can be found. They now house small predators in these cage-like construction. All with the same interior design and situated uphill, with artificial rocks and therefore multilevel. The honey badger (Mellivora capensis) (see video), bat-eared fox, fossa and Turkmenistan caracal (Caracal caracal schitzi) are on display here. Furthermore, on this side of the path yellow-footed rock wallaby, and a desert bighorn (kept as a single individual) are housed in a rocky open top exhibit. In addition the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and the New Guinea singing dog (Canis lupus dingo1,2) are kept over here. The dogs I didn’t see, but I heard their continuous howling which indeed sounds like singing.
So far, I am totally confused and haven’t figured out the grouping of the Zoo’s animal collection. It’s not by geographical origin, not by habitat origin, not by taxonomic tree and not by eating habits, although only the wallaby is the outlier from this being a predator area. At the end of this trail there’s a bird of prey — the bateleur eagle aviary, a large free flight aviary that looks natural with its large boulders in the background. But to disrupt the logic again the next exhibit is a mixed species one with klipspringer and rock hyrax from South Africa. While around the corner, just before the Elephant Odyssey area begins, there’s a small jungle-like enclosure that houses North-Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis). And with the primates on the other side of the Urban Jungle I am totally lost while trying to find any logical grouping in the way the collection is distributed over the premises.
Before visiting the inner circle of the Urban Jungle I first tour the Outback. Just a few days before my visit a brand new koala exhibit opened to the public on 24.05.2013, as part of the Outback area. And also new to me is that I will see koalas in an outdoor exhibit for the first time in a zoo outside Australia. Every exhibit here at San Diego Zoo contains a single male koala (at least seven), dead tree trunks and a parasol (with a perforated steel roof). Because male koalas can be territorial, they have their own perches in one area, while the more social females and their offspring, called joeys, share another area. The elevated walkways bring you to eye level with the koalas as they perch in their dead tree, where they are provided with California grown eucalyptus. The Zoo welcomed the first pair of koalas back in 1925. This in the end led to the largest koala colony as well as the most successful koala breeding programme outside of Australia.
The Matschie’s tree kangaroo occupies an enclosure very unlike its original habitat, mountainous forests. Here at San Diego it has a kind of desert at its disposal with many trunks and poles as climbing enrichment.
To finalise the visit to this area before moving on to the elephants I go to the inner circle of the Urban Jungle, where also the backstage pass entertainment area is situated. Seven specimens of Maasai giraffe are housed together with Nubian Soemmering’s gazelle (Gazelle soemmerringhii soemmerringhii), and across the footpath the two Indian rhino are kept separate in rather small enclosures with a pool. The binturong subspecies from Java (Arctictis binturong penicillatus) is kept in an old-fashioned cage, which is absolutely not fit for purpose considering current zoo standards. It is a very very small enclosure, although it contains a variety of environmental enrichment to compensate for the small size of the exhibit. Not sure, but could well be that there’s only one individual.
The clouded leopard is one of the animal ambassadors (see video) people with a Backstage Pass can see in a close encounter activity at San Diego Zoo. Unfortunately, the regular exhibit in which this beautiful but rare feline is on display was shockingly bad in my opinion. Way too small and no place to hide. This way the animal ambassador does not provide a good example or has no educational value regarding its habitat and needs I would say. Therefore, I hope the off-exhibit facilities are much better.
Other species they use as animal ambassadors are cheetahs and wolves. When a cheetah cub or wolf pup is brought into their animal ambassadors programme, it is paired with a domestic dog puppy. Through playtime and snuggling, the two animals develop a deep bond of trust that last a lifetime. When they go out on presentations, the dog sets the tone for its wild companion — if the dog is relaxed, so is the cheetah or wolf.
After the Urban Jungle and the Outback the next destination is the Elephant Odyssey. This trail provides education about the Americas ancient historic fauna which relates to today’s fauna.
The California condor, the largest flying bird in North America, is a flagship species of the Zoo. The condor was almost extinct in 1982 with only 22 birds left in the wild. A captive-breeding programme initiated by San Diego Zoo saved the bird from going extinct. The California Condor Recovery Project became one of the best examples of recovery programmes of endangered species. Still, currently the California condor is located in the wild only in isolated areas of reintroduction: California and Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico. (see More info)
According the information provided at the pronghorns enclosure, the pronghorns roaming the plains of the North American Pleistocene were almost exactly like the pronghorns we see today.
The elephant enclosure is a rest home for seven elderly elephants, a mix of three African bush elephants and four Asian elephants. As the herd consists of older, non-breeding elephants the state-of-the-art Elephant Care Center at the premises is very helpful. The large enclosure has a dry sandy substrate with feeding enrichment systems at central locations. These also have got a hoisting system for feed bags, while at the same time its roof provide shade. The enclosure is divided in several parts each with a different kind of enrichment. There’s a huge pool — small lake — at one end. Water from the elephant pool flows into the capybara pool via a waterfall. The capybara are housed together with the tapir.
In this area there’s another jaguar enclosure to see, more modern than the one for the jaguar in the Urban Jungle section. This one comprises an adult male and female together with two cubs, born April 2012. It is a nice exhibit, but the animals are very exposed because there is little to none vegetation and wire mesh fences all around. The animals have almost no hiding places, because even the indoor facilities have windows for the visitor to have a look. Nevertheless, there’s lot of enrichment, high level tree trunks for climbing and resting/observation, and there’s a pond with fish. The same counts for their neighbours, the two African lions, that have an absolutely superb high level observation platform (an artificial boulder) that appears to lead to the entrance of the lions’ night facilities.
Following the footpath and ignoring the entrance to the Sky Safari station, there are several enclosures with various African species of gazelle on display. The animals are housed species by species such as Cuvieri gazelle, southern gerenuk, Arabian oryx, with just a few individuals per species. Finally, at the end of this row of ungulate enclosures, a mixed species exhibit with a savannah-like habitat can be found comprising Speke’s gazelle, lesser kudu and southern gerenuk.
Across from this exhibit is the entrance to the Northern Frontier area with its main attraction, the three polar bears. The visitors can see the bears either in the water, or on the shore against the backdrop of an artificial rock face wall. The very large pool along the full length of the exhibit is filled with very clear water and has viewing windows. This allows for some good underwater viewing. But while I am there the bears are doing nothing and lie lazily in the hot sun, dreaming of nice juicy seals I assume. This is of course a very unnatural habitat for the polar bears and the other Arctic species (reindeer and Arctic fox) as the semi-arid climate of San Diego provides average temperatures in winter around 10 °C, while in summer the average temperature is 32 °C, with peaks that can reach 40 °C.
Moving on, I reach a row of large aviaries just around the bend after the mixed species savannah exhibit. These aviaries, with Steller’s sea eagle, Ornate hawk-eagle, Andean condor and Harpy-eagle, seems to be fenced-off areas of the original grounds at Balboa Park, with lots of trees and shrubs.
On my final stage of this day’s tour of the Zoo I arrive at the Panda Trek. The two red panda specimens are housed in a pit with a few trees, like in so many other zoos. When they sleep in the trees, what they normally do for about 20 hours per day, they are on eye-level with the visitor. The enclosure is not particular interesting, especially when you compare it with Cologne Zoo or Rotterdam Zoo where the red pandas have access to really large leafy trees.
There is an enormous long queue for the entrance of the Panda Canyon with its giant pandas, so that on I skip, thinking I will have another possibility tomorrow. Instead I decide to do a quick round, just before closing time via two of the walk-through aviaries in the Lost Forest (Owens and Parker Aviary). Owens aviary comprises at least 36 species of bird. It has two balcony footpaths on different levels. It has got dense vegetation but not as moist as in a authentic rainforest, which is difficult to achieve of course in an outdoors enclosure in the semi-arid climate of San Diego.
1Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, 2004, IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group; Australia and Oceania (Australasian), Dingo, p223. Retrieved on 03.05.2015
2Dingo may be world’s oldest dog breed. Perth Now (18.03.2010). Retrieved on 03.05.2015.