Take a safari through the famous SD Zoo

by Michael Misselwitz

The San Diego Zoo features habitats home to more than 4,000 animals and 800 different species. File Photo
The San Diego Zoo features habitats home to more than 4,000 animals and 800 different species. File Photo

Last week, a hippo was born in San Diego.

The newborn of San Diego’s beloved hippo Funani is the latest addition to the family of more than 4,000 animals at the San Diego Zoo, where more than 800 species inhabit 100 acres of jungle, forest and desert habitats.

For decades, the zoo has been world-renowned for its thriving botanical gardens and its collection of happy, healthy animals.

However, with global conservation efforts and a mission to promote environmentalism and genetic diversity, the zoo is a breeding ground for more than just hippos.

There are 15 exhibits at the San Diego Zoo, nine of which showcase the array of exotic animals in habitats ranging from the Polar Rim to the African Rocks. The exhibits are located throughout the zoo’s world-class botanical gardens, each engineered to transport the animals, and the visitors, into the native domain of the species.

For instance, in Panda Canyon, visitors will find themselves winding along pathways elevated between enormous climbing structures and bamboo forests, where giant pandas frolic among luxurious amenities. Onlookers are privileged to observe the only naturally breeding pair of pandas in the U.S.

There is more to the habitat than meets the eye, however — the Giant Panda team, a group of professional researchers and panda keepers, monitors the pandas at all hours in compliance with the zoo’s primary mission of conservation.

“It’s an inspirational environment because there’s so much going on. It’s not just a zoo — they do research, they do outreach programs — you can learn something new every day,” four-year veteran tour guide Laurel Reisman said.

Other exhibits have also been modified to promote conservation research and environmental awareness. Polar Bear Plunge, a division of the Polar Rim exhibit, displays Arctic polar bears with both terrestrial and underwater showcases, and has been redesigned to emphasize the need for people to help offset climate change. The zoo’s website encourages visitors to “become more aware of the impact of their daily choices … (on) wildlife around the world.”

Yet another favorite is the recently added Elephant Odyssey exhibit, displaying the zoo’s magnificent family of elephants alongside prehistoric life-size replicas of mega fauna that lived naturally in San Diego more than 12,000 years ago. It was constructed “to tell a story to help people realize that our actions affect the environment, and if we don’t do more to help there may be another mass extinction,” Reisman said.

The San Diego Zoo is the most famous element of the three-part entity that encompasses the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The Safari Park, formerly known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park, recently adopted the new name “with the goal of unifying all aspects of our organization and increasing awareness of our conservation efforts,” according to the park’s website. Located 35 miles northeast of the zoo, it provides an open-space preserve of more than 1,800 acres — 18 times the size of the zoo — where visitors can get up close and personal with more than 3,500 animals comprising 400 different species.

The park is unique from a typical zoo in that it is home to herd-style animals such as rhinos, giraffes and antelopes that graze in ample open-space habitats instead of the more confined domains of a zoo. The experience is essentially that of an African safari in San Diego.

At Safari Park, visitors can view and interact with these animals through a variety of exhilarating experiences. They can trek the trails on foot, embark on a Photo Caravan Tour in one of the park’s off-road safari vehicles, zip across a 2/3 mile expanse on the cable Flightline suspended 160 feet above the park and animals below, or — for the more relaxed adventurer — ride on a Segway as part of the Rolling Safari Tour.

Safari Park officials recommend a four to six-hour visit in order to take in everything the park has to offer.

The underlying mission of conservation at both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park is sustained by the efforts of the affiliated Institute for Conservation Research. The institute currently leads approximately 140 conservation projects in more than 35 countries across the globe. Among these projects is the Species Survival Plan, which Reisman compared to an Internet dating service for the global community of zoos and aquariums looking to help sustain population diversity in species around the world.

For those looking to become more than just a visitor, the San Diego Zoo offers various employment opportunities ranging from volunteer work to summer internships to full-time zoo keepers.

“I wanted a job where I was learning something that mattered, and at the zoo you always learn about conservation,” Reisman said. “I applied online. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

For more information about employment, operating hours, tickets, special events or to see video footage of the newborn baby hippo, visit the San Diego Zoo’s website at sandiegozoo.org.