But does San Diego really deserve its lofty reputation? Is this zoo really much more than a big city zoo on steroids? Well yes, actually. Which is not to say that San Diego Zoo is faultless. Like many city zoos it suffers here and there from a legacy of cage design that no longer always does it justice. And while the bulldozers are busy sweeping away much of these relics and newer, better enclosures are springing up in their place, enough remain to take off the shine from time to time.
It all goes back to Dr Harry M. Wegeforth who founded the San Diego Zoological Society in 1916. He couldn’t have picked a better location. San Diego’s tropical climate is softened by breezes from the Pacific, and the hundred acres of parkland that the zoo occupies close to the centre of the city is a richly wooded series of canyons and mesas that impose a complex three dimensional geography on the park, making it delightfully confusing to explore, and frankly quite hard work to cover on foot. Thankfully the zoo has come to the aid of the visitor with moving walkways on the hardest slopes, a wonderful cable car sky ride, and best of all a continuous flow of double-decker open busses that cruise the wide roadways around the zoo, while the drivers provide a non-stop (and surprisingly well informed) commentary. The best option on the busses is the kangaroo ticket which lets you on and off as you choose, and unless you’ve come equipped for walking, this is a good way to criss-cross the zoo and then to explore at will. The canyons of the zoo are landscaped as lush tropical valleys with palms, ferns, huge bamboos, big bold flowers, and the tantalising smells of the rainforest. The mesas are open, desert-like spaces, giving the zoo a glorious mosaic of contrasts that has been used well in the design of animal enclosures. They claim to have 6,000 species of plants here, and many of them are well labelled. Its a botanist’s paradise as well as a zoologist’s.
I was hoping to avoid descending into a list of species, but with San Diego Zoo you just can’t avoid it. The species list at this zoo reads like pages from the Red Data Book of endangered animals, which might be alarming if you didn’t know the amazing reputation this zoo has for breeding some of the most recalcitrant species. I worry sometimes that this plethora of the world’s most precious animals clearly don’t make an impact on every visitor. There are those who visit zoos to see lions and tigers and elephants and, bless them, those folk will always be with us, and they may stroll past a group of douc langurs without an upward glance and that is their privilege. I am probably equally underwhelmed as I walk through the exhibition Chinese Antiquities at the British Museum failing to linger and gaze in awe at the rare and precious Ming artefacts. It does, I suppose, require some understanding of the rare and precious privilege that a zoo like San Diego affords to us. We can stand and look upon a delicate and fragile monkey, one of the very few survivors of its kind. We can watch it leap effortlessly among the branches. We can hear it call. We can smell its musky odour. What value a Ming vase compared to this?
So to my list of animals you must see at San Diego. Those douc langurs, okapi in a wonderfully densely planted enclosure, the Calamian deer, the dorcas gazelle, the Szechuan takin (the last forest musk ox), Mhor’s gazelle (extinct in the wild), the delightful Bornean bearded pig, the tiny Kazakhastan corsac fox, the sun bear, the endangered lion tailed macaques, spectacled bears, black rhinos, Malayan tapirs, koalas, Guam rails (extinct in the wild), the Tahiti blue lorry from the Cook Islands (one of the rarest parrots in the world), dusky padmelons, gorillas in a large woodland clearing with a stream, Nubian soemmering’s gazelle, Tasmanian devils, giant pandas, drills. I could go on. And on. These are just my pick of the top twenty or so. You will have your own top twenty favourites, and there are hundreds to choose from. Take time just to stand and watch them, and reflect that you may never see their like again.
Most of the modern enclosures are impressively designed. There are very few bars, and the zoo makes excellent use of moats and textured concrete walls particluarly with the grazers up on the mesa. Of course there are traditional zoo exhibits too. There are elephants (two Asian and one African), polar bears, tigers, and eagles. Not every enclosure will impress. The brown bears are in a traditional pit that doesn’t look much bigger than a tennis court. The lion grotto, built in the 1930s, is small, concrete, and horrid. The monkey cages are reminiscent of 1960s zoos, small square hard boxes. And why keep Californian sealions in an uninspiring pool when a boat trip from the harbour can show you them in the wild? I reassure myself that the San Diego Zoo is bold enough, and confident enough to share these reservations. Perhaps they have gone already. Possibly the boldest move that the San Diego Zoological Society ever made was to build a new, and potentially even better zoo – the San Diego Wild Animal Park at Escondido, just an hour’s drive north of the city. In time this might allow San Diego Zoo to relax just a little, to divest itself of just a few of its ABC species and to settle down to what it does so brilliantly well, nurturing the world’s most endangered animals, and acting as a role model for a thousand zoos who all want to be San Diego Zoo. Don’t even think of visiting San Diego without visiting both the zoo and the Wild Animal Park. Why, it would be like visiting the Louvre and giving the Mona Lisa a miss