Ever taken an African Safari in your own back yard? :-) It's quite easy to do if your "back yard" is San Diego County!
We're sure almost everyone has heard of the San Diego Zoo, but the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a wildlife preserve located about 30 miles from San Diego, is perhaps less well known.
The Wild Animal Park (also operated by the San Diego Zoological Society) is a much different environment - it allows you to see the animals much as you would in their native habitats. Sometimes this means you don't get to see the animals "up close and personal", but instead you get to see them in a much more natural setting. After all, when was the last time you saw a giraffe in a zoo have enough room to kick up its heels and run, or saw a rhinoceros plodding majestically across the plains?
One reason this particular site was chosen was because of the similarity of the climate to that of the plains of Africa and Asia. Which means that it can get very hot and dry! We were there on a beautiful spring day, though - a few clouds, and quite comfortable temperatures in the low to mid 70s.
The Wild Animal Park is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. We hadn't been up there in about 8 years (despite the fact that we have been Zoo members for that entire time, which means we get in "free"), and we saw a lot of changes - many new exhibits and innovative ways to let the public "get closer" to the animals yet still feel that they are wild and free.
The newest exhibit is called "Heart of Africa", and just opened Memorial Day weekend. For lack of a better term, it's a peninsula that extends into the African plains, into the area that the animals live, rather than just along the perimeter. It's raised to keep humans and animals apart, but there are no walls or fences, so you feel like you are in the middle of Africa. Everything is beautifully landscaped with cascading streams and native vegetation.
At the entrance is the Okapi exhibit - in addition to the adults, there was a baby that was having a wonderful time frolicking along the hillside.
Next was the warthog exhibit - they were pretty active, and we even saw one jump over a log! That was surprising - they never seem like the jumping type. Another interesting thing is that when they forage, they actually kneel down on their front legs, and crawl on their "knees". It looks very natural, and it wasn't immediately obvious to us that that's what they were doing.
In the center is a water area and on an island in the middle are the colobus monkeys. I think they look like skunk monkeys, they have long black fur, but a long white tail! They were putting on a pretty good show climbing in the trees and chasing each other up and down the ropes and logs.
They have set up a giraffe feeding station where visitors can feed biscuits to the giraffes. We didn't get any biscuits, but got an up close and personal look at a giraffe who came over to take some from other people. And there was a baby giraffe running around having a good time.
We left Heart of Africa and walked over to the gibbons' enclosure. They have a jungle gym in their exhibit and two of them were chasing each other all over - swinging from ropes, poles, the sides of the cage... I'm sure Bela Karolyi would love to have gymnasts as skilled as they were. :-)
From there we went to the Lowland Gorilla exhibit, and saw the entire family, including the big male, a couple females and several youngsters, including a year old female that stayed very close to her mother.
We also wandered through the "Hidden Jungle" exhibit, where they have all the insects (like Hissing Cockroaches!) and then an aviary with hummingbirds and butterflies. We didn't see too many butterflies - wrong time of year, I suppose. They had some carnivorous plants (Venus Flytraps and Pitcher Plants) with a funny sign saying "Please don't feed the plants". :-)
We followed the signs to try and find the cheetahs, which were supposed to be over by the Elephant Show, and ended up on the Kilimanjaro Trail, which follows the perimeter of the preserve partway around. We didn't have time to walk the whole thing because we wanted to make a 1:00 show. But we discovered that in addition to the animals, the trail leads to a lot of different gardens with a variety of themes - herbs, protea, fuschias, bonsai, native california plants, and even a "waterfall" garden with a cascading stream running through it. We seemed to be the only people back in that area of the park, and it was very quiet and peaceful.
We attended the "Rare and Wild America" show, which showcases North American animals, rather than African/Asian animals. Rather than training the animals to do a lot of tricks, they instead showcase their natural behaviors, as well as allowing us to get a much closer look at them. We saw a Canadian Lynx named Dakota, Spike, a rather appropriately named porcupine, a black wolf named Kenai, a coatimundi, two beavers named Ward and June :-), Hoss the black bear, an adorable fox, and my favorite, a raccoon named Ralph. Ralph stole the show, in my opinion - his "natural" behaviors included liberating an empty coke can from a closed picnic basket, and then hopping off stage to recycle it. :-)
The Bird Show was next - they had quite a number of different birds. Clarence the vulture (with the 9 foot wing span!) was fun to watch - vultures have that very unusual gait as they hop along. We also saw some amazing talking parrots, including Pancho and Lolita, who have appeared on the Tonight Show. And a cockatoo named Yoyo, who "steals" money from members of the audience. (She later returns it, though.) Samantha, the red-tailed hawk, is 15, and has been performing for 14 years. She does an amazing dive from about 500 feet in the air. An interesting thing about the bird show is that all of them are free flying, and could choose to leave if they wanted - but they know a good thing when they see it! They also had an emu. Emus are not known for their brain power - in 7 years, all they have managed to train him to do is run from one trainer to another.
We stayed around afterwards for the "Hawk Talk" where one of the trainers brings out a couple of the birds for a closer look and a question and answer session. It was interesting to learn more about the birds.
We walked back over to try and find the cheetahs again - we found their enclosure this time, but it was empty and we discovered they have been moved over to Heart of Africa, although we didn't see them there.
By this time it was getting late in the day, and the last monorail leaves at 4:00 for the tour around the park, so we went to get in line. The monorail takes you on a 5 mile tour of the park, and is the ONLY way to see certain sections of it. A tip, should you ever visit: sit on the right side of the monorail. For the most part the monorail circles the perimiter of the park, and most of the animals are on the right hand side.
The monorail is called the WGASA bush line, and the local story is that before the park opened they were having a really hard time coming up with an appropriate Swahili word for the monorail. Finally someone said "Aw, who gives a shit anyway?", and someone else said, "That's it! WGASA!" and thus the name was born.
We saw lots and lots of antelope/gazelle things - bonteboks, oryx, impalas, gazelles, elands - can't even begin to remember all of the names! And there were Cape buffalo, wildebeests, mountain goats...etc. We learned that there's one type of zebra (the black with white stripes, as opposed to the white with black stripes) that's really mean, and they were always picking on the other animals, so they have their own enclosure now where they can pick on each other.
There were several different varieties of rhinoceros - the Southern White Rhino is the symbol of the Wild Animal Park. We saw the Przewalski's horses, which are a real success story - they were either extinct or very close to it when the San Diego Zoo began a breeding program in the late 60's, and it has been so successful that they are re-introducing them into the wild in Mongolia. Another success story is the Arabian Oryx, which is being re-introduced into Oman.
We heard about Ivan the giraffe - Ivan doesn't seem to think he is a giraffe, and hangs around with some of the other animals, instead. For a while he thought he was an ostrich, and then decided he was a zebra - but they picked on him (one bit the tip of his tail off!), so he went back to the ostriches. Lately he's been socializing with the Cape Buffalo. Fortunately, Ivan does remember that he is a giraffe during mating season, and has sired a number of calves.
We saw more giraffes and rhinos, and even some California mule deer, before heading back into the monorail station. It was getting close to closing time, but we did a little shopping, and got a look at the ring-tailed lemurs.
We're going to have to go back again, because there were a lot of things that we didn't have a chance to visit, such as:
The Wild Animal Park offers other opportunities to get close to the animals - like their Photo Caravans, where they load a group in a stake bed truck, and then actually drive around inside the preserve for a much better look at the animals.
Text and photographs copyright © 1997, by Laura Gilbreath. Feel free to link to this document, but you may not redistribute it in any form without the express written consent of the copyright holder.
Laura Gilbreath, email: lgil at lgil dot net