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 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.

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.
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