I grew up watching Jack Hanna on TV showcasing all sorts of amazing animals from this legendary place called the San Diego Zoo. When I was younger, I was pretty sure that I’d grow up to be a marine biologist, zoologist or exotic vet… so I took all things animal pretty seriously. The San Diego Zoo was all over my favorite TV Channel, Animal Planet, as the be all end all zoo in North America. I didn’t know what wondrous creatures it held, but I knew that I wanted to go there.
Over Christmas break I finally had my chance! The friend I was visiting in San Diego works with the Schools at the Park program, and was happy to take me to the esteemed zoo of my childhood. On the way there, we walked through Balboa Park which is unlike anything I’ve seen in the US.
It’s this large, beautifully manicured park with museums and historic buildings scattered all around it. My friend said most were built for a World’s Fair in the early 1900’s, but now they are filled with various museums and offices for employees.
The park’s largest attraction is the zoo itself at the far end. Jack Hanna told me there would be tons of amazing animals there, but he didn’t prepare me for the immense crowds. San Diego is a popular tourist destination over the New Year, and the zoo is no exception. Some 26,000 people made their way through the relatively small area (much smaller by land mass than the North Carolina Zoo I wrote about a few weeks ago) and the place was packed.
Luckily, my friend had an in because she’s hip and cool and in the know, and we were ushered in by one of the zoo’s educational staff members. This turned out to be great, because we were given a bit of a behind the scenes tour of some areas.
I got to meet Matilda, a fabulous Kookaburra bird, that is used for education.
We also got a lot more interaction from the animals than some guests. Turns out, a lot of the zoo’s creatures recognize the trademark shirts and badges that staff members wear. Many, like the tiger below, will run over in hopes of food or other rewards/interaction.
It certainly made me feel like a VIP when I was there.
If you’re an animal nerd and into endangered species, this is the place to go. I got to see Amur Leopards, a critically endangered species with less than 60 individuals left in the wild. The San Diego Zoo is essential for species like the Amur Leopard, as they are currently mid-captive breeding programs to try and save the animals.
Though the zoo is packed with animals (and people), it’s not a photographer’s dream. Smallish enclosures and safe fencing mean that clear photos are hard to get – especially when you’re trying not to hit small children in the head with your gigantic telephoto lens. We didn’t end up seeing all of the exhibits, because it was just too crowded and truthfully after my trip to the NC Zoo a week prior I was a little bit less enthused than I normally would be.
Still, I loved being able to cross an item off of the bucket list my 12 year old self made. I hope to return one day when it’s not as filled with people, and take my time meandering around all the fascinating critters.