San Diego

San Diego Zoo


(Note re images herein: The photos in this post are from my two visits to the San Diego Zoo spaced about 10 months apart.)

A word of advice: Don’t visit the San Diego Zoo the day after you’ve visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

OK. True. That’s a sentence of advice, not a word of advice, but why quibble? You get the point. Or maybe you don’t. I’ll explain.

My most recent visit was the second time I’d been to the San Diego Zoo. My first visit was less than a year prior.

I went back because I thought the San Diego Zoo was incredible. Compared to the zoos of my youth, the San Diego Zoo is much more expansive and kinder to the animals than those old-style animal prisons.

Koala bear
Koala bear

At the San Diego Zoo, wherever possible, artificial moats and/or escarpments surround animal enclosures rather than severe, ugly fences and bars. The effect, to my mind, was a view of animals that appeared closer to the animals’ natural habitats than old-style zoo cages.

(If memory serves, the Toronto Zoo also uses this more natural design wherever possible. I haven’t been there for a few decades. I should go back to make sure my recollection of it is correct.)

Of course, in some cases, such as animals capable of flying or making great leaps, pens that look more like cages and less like natural habitats are unavoidable to protect the animals’ and the publics’ safety.

Spaces Versus Pens

So, why was it a mistake to visit the San Diego Zoo the day after visiting it’s sister operation, the Safari Park, 35 miles away? The Sand Diego Zoo Safari Park covers 1,800 acres. The San Diego Zoo is much smaller than that. The Safari Park includes some animals that are allowed to range over decent-sized plains. In comparison, the Zoo’s pens aren’t all that much larger than some of the smallish cages in old-style zoos. And, for some reason, after having just visited the Safari Park, I noticed a lot more fences at the Zoo than I recalled having seeing on my first visit.


In short, except for a few of the smaller exhibits at the Safari Park, the Zoo paled in comparison to the Safari Park in terms of the generosity of space and the naturalness of habitats given over to the animals. The San Diego Zoo is probably still one of the best in the world, but it suffered from temporally close comparison to the Zoo’s Safari Park.

Dromedary camel
Dromedary camel

That having been said, the San Diego Zoo houses a great many more species—by a very wide margin—than the Safari Park. So, if your goal is to view as many different types of animals as possible, you’ll do much better at the Zoo.

After I ranted about the cost of the Safari Park in my post on it, I should mention that when I went (no promises about future prices) the general admission price to the Zoo was the same as the admission price to the Safari Park. The differences were that parking was free at the Zoo and, unlike at the Safari Park, there was no need to buy any expensive, extra-fee safaris to get the full experience.


Despite what I said about its size relative to the Safari Park, I don’t want to give the impression that the San Diego Zoo is small. It covers a generous amount of space compared to other zoos I’ve visited. It’s big enough that you should allow yourself at least half a day if you want to see everything, even if you don’t plan to spend all that much time communing with any one species.

Giant Pandas

(Post continues after panda slide show)

The two times I’ve visited the San Diego Zoo the star attraction has been the Giant Pandas, although it’s wrong to call them the zoo’s. Zoos outside of China don’t own any pandas. They are almost all on loan from the Chinese government.

My first visit was only a few weeks after Liwu, a panda cub born at the zoo on July 29, 2012, was first housed in a public display area. On my second visit to the zoo, Xiao Liwu, one of four pandas that were at the zoo when I was there, had grown considerably.

Xiao Liwu is not the first panda to be born at the San Diego Zoo. In fact, with six cubs having been conceived there already, the zoo is one of the most successful zoos at panda reproduction, particularly natural reproduction.

Pandas are solitary animals and notably not frisky. Most pandas born at zoos were conceived by artificial insemination, but the San Diego Zoo has had considerable success letting its pandas make babies the natural way.

Six cubs have been born there. I don’t know if they were all conceived through sex as opposed to artificial insemination. That’s the pandas’ business as far as I’m concerned.

The San Diego Zoo won’t be Liwu’s permanent home. As part of the panda loan agreements with China, all panda cubs born at zoos are the property of China. Once they are old enough to be weaned from their mothers and crate-trained, they usually must sent back to China.

Speaking of permanent panda homes, according to the San Diego Zoo’s Web site, it got its pandas in 1996 on a 12-year loan. That loan was extended for five years in 2008. By my calculations, that means that the loan ends in 2013.

The Zoo might simply be delinquent in posting information, but when I checked in preparation for writing this post, the Web site didn’t yet mention anything about a further extension. However, my most recent visit (at least, the most recent when I wrote this post; I can’t promise I won’t go back) was in November 2013. There were no “last chance to see the pandas” signs up. Not only that, but the pandas were in a temporary exhibit area because renovations underway in their main viewing area. So I assume the pandas will be there for a while, but if viewing pandas is your primary reason for visiting the zoo you might want to check that they’re still there before you go.


Diverse Species

Apart from the pandas, the zoo is home to a wide variety of species. There are too many to mention here, but some of the ones that stood out in my mind were the koala bears, gorillas, orang-utans, elephants, monkeys, a bunch of species the names of which I can’t remember, and our one of our nearest cousins on the evolutionary tree, bonobos.

The animals are grouped into large themed areas, including African Rocks, Lost Forest, Panda Canyon, Urban Jungle, Asian Passage, Elephant Odyssey, Outback, and Northern Frontier.

If you want to see it all, plan to do a lot of walking. And, because some of the exhibits are in a ravine, some of that walking might involve climbs. However, if climbing up and down hills is not your, look for the escalators and moving sidewalk. They are there if you look for them. They are also there if you don’t look for them. It’s not magic.

Secretary bird
Secretary bird

Secretary Birds

There were a couple of species other than the ones I mentioned above that stood out in my mind. One was the secretary bird. I couldn’t help wondering how pissed off this species must be about it’s name. In this day and age, I would have thought they’ insist on being called executive assistant birds rather than secretary birds.

I do still very much like the San Diego Zoo, so I hate to end this post on a sour note, but I will anyway. The other species that gave me pause was polar bears. Why the hell are there polar bears at the San Diego Zoo? Fools though they may be, they like the ice and cold.

Polar Bears

We have polar bears at the Toronto Zoo. Summers are a bit too hot for them here too, but at least we have winters with a little ice and snow, which is somewhat closer to polar bears’ natural habitat.

San Diego, on the other hand has summer all year round. As far as I’m concerned, the San Diego climate is about as close to perfect as you can get. But I’m not a polar bear. Polar bears, which evolved to hunt seals off ice flows in the frigid artic, probably have a different opinion.

Polar bear
Polar bear

Here in Toronto, our zoo used to have elephants. They were suffering during our cold winters. As a result, they were recently sent to an elephant sanctuary in California. We no longer have elephants at our zoo and, unless a fabulously rich person donates an obscene amount of money to create an enormous indoor environment for them (it’s not going to happen), we probably never will again.

I can’t help thinking that the San Diego Zoo should send its polar bears north for the same reason.

One of the zoos employees told me that to help the polar bears to better cope with the hot weather, the zoo feeds them a low-fat diet, unlike the high-fat seal-blubber diet they normally feast on in the arctic. As a result, the polar bears at the San Diego build up fewer fat layers and, according to the zoo employee, are therefore better able to cope with the San Diego climate.

He also told me that a couple of times a year the zoo contracts a company to cart in huge ice blocks that are put through a shredder to create snow. The zoo then hides the bears’ “toys” (I didn’t think to ask what their toys are) in the snow. According to the zoo employee, the bears “go crazy” playing in the snow.

The zoo can’t afford to do this more than a couple times a year because it’s very expensive. I don’t know about you, but I think the polar bears deserve more fun in their lives.


  1. Personally I’m not a “fan”. I find zoos to be man’s answer to his own guilt of destroying so much land and habitat on this planet. A cage or enclosure or large area encompassed by a fence is not my idea of freedom to roam. I life in captivity for an animal is much like man being incarcerated in prison, just enough is done to keep him alive so the funding keeps coming in. Man pats himself on his back for his achievements to show off to the world. Yes, look what he has done, he has destroyed habitat so now he makes amends.

    I’m sure that species preservation also happens in the wild, and when it doesn’t we call it extinction, which we can’t live with because then the rest of the world may never see an animal they never knew existed. I know, let’s hold a fund raiser, lets give a tax break, and lets feel better about ourselves because we caged animals which cannot roam free due to mankind.

    Sounds fun, but no thanks.

    1. Of course, I suspect that for most of the people visiting zoos (I shamefully admit, myself included) the conservation objectives of zoos are secondary by a wide margin to their entertainment value. Some of those people will self-righteously, but disingenuously claim they go to support the conservation aspect. On the other hand, other people are consciously and subconsciously entirely truthful when they make that claim.

      1. We are a society of “gawkers” and “well sayers” who like to, if only to themselves, think they are making a difference. One cannot fix what one has destroyed forever. I suppose that is the price we pay for moving forward.

  2. I’ve heard that the San Diego Zoo is exemplary among zoos, but the tone of your post sort of sums up how I feel about zoos in general. I wonder how the health and longevity of captive animals compares with that of animals in the wild.

    1. I haven’t been to a lot of zoos, so I don’t have a large sample size, but from what little I’ve seen and from what I’ve read I think the San Diego Zoo ranks up there among the best. I enjoy the better sort of zoo, i.e., with reasonably large, as natural as possible animal enclosures, but I can’t help feeling a little guilty about enjoying them.

      Then again, I feel guilty about a great many things—guilt feelings are, along with neuroses, the core of my being—so that’s not much of a gauge.

  3. Last year I went to the Philadelphia Zoo and I had a good time. But then it hits you .. these animals are put on display like some sort of museum in a space comparable to the wild is a closet. Imagine a human being, being stuck in a confined space for the enjoyment of others. I’m no longer a fan of zoo’s but what can we really do. On the plus side, they do take care of the animals and feed them and clean them but then again they are meant and built to be in the wild.

    This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s, “Slaughterhous Five” when the main character, Billy Pilgrim is put on display for the Tralfalmadorian’s (aliens) and stripped away of everything while they watch him in this ‘natural’ habitat and also watch him mate.

    All in all, it’s humiliating.

    1. I vacillate on this. Yes, the animals are confined and put on display for human visitors’ enjoyment, but I don’t complain about people who keep pets for their enjoyment. And, most zoos have professional zookeepers who know more about animal welfare than most pet-owners.

      (Full disclosure: I don’t own any pets. Other than some turtles that I had as a young child, which didn’t live long, I’ve never had pets.)

  4. I go back and forth on the issue of animal rights, as well. That being said, I confess I really do love a great zoo. There’s on in Omaha that’s fabulous. Still, even if I was provided with a nice “house” and free food, I doubt I’d like people peeking in on my business.

    1. I admit to being a human-chauvinist. I rarely get terribly riled up about animal rights. Nevertheless, I do tend to vacillate about how I feel about the justice of zoos, despite generally enjoying a good one.

      And, you’re right. I wouldn’t be too happy about every Tom, Dick, Harry, Theresa, Darlene and Heather watching my every move. That’s the government’s job.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.