My first introduction to the San Diego Zoo was the movie Rainbow Brite: San Diego Zoo Adventure. In the film, Murky Dismal is stealing the colors from the animals throughout the zoo, and Rainbow Brite is enlisted to help recover the colors. During my first visit to the zoo a couple weeks ago, I thought about this movie as I watched the spotted leopard snoozing in the sun and the colorful lorikeet grooming itself on a tree branch.
Let me be very honest upfront: I am not a fan of zoos. They feel too contained and unnatural. How can animals that would wander for miles and miles in the wild possibly find happiness and peace with being contained in an enclosure? I’m particularly aware of this having lived in Kenya, where zebras and elephants wandered freely near our home. For years, people have told me that the San Diego is stellar. It is a non-profit organization and is concerned with the conservation and protection of animals as well as educating the public about them.
It is a huge zoo—100 acres—where more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals live, but the thing I loved best about it was simply the fact that it didn’t feel like a zoo at all. In fact, to me, the San Diego Zoo felt like a giant park with lots of green space and habitats for animals that felt much more like natural habitats than what is found in many zoos. Only in one instance did I feel that the habitat felt too zoo-like with lots of concrete and minimal space for the creatures living there.
The fact that the San Diego Zoo for the most part didn’t feel like a zoo was one of a handful of things that made my day there particularly appealing. Here are a few others:
> It doesn’t try to be everything to every animal lover. I’m not sure if it’s because SeaWorld is located nearby or not, but the San Diego Zoo has no aquarium section. There are no sharks or dolphins or whales. An Arctic section is also missing, so don’t expect to find penguins or seals. There wasn’t a butterfly house either. I’m okay with all of this. A lot of zoos try to hit it all, and in doing so, fall short in providing adequate facilities for the critters housed there.
> There were animals I’d never seen before, which made the experience particularly different from other zoos. The usual suspects were featured—elephants, pythons, giraffes—but there were also some animals I’d honestly never heard of before. I stupidly forgot to write down the names of some of these animals, but suffice to say they were the highlight of my day. I feel like I actually learned something when I watched these new-to-me animals interacting with each other.
> Animals that would live together in the wild live together here. Different species of animals that might encounter each other in the wild but wouldn’t do each other harm live together. It was refreshing to see animals in a less sterile, more natural environment.
> It wasn’t crowded. We visited on a Thursday in the middle of the summer and for some reason I thought it would be crowded, but it really wasn’t. There were a few summer camp groups, but for the most part, it was very low key and uncrowded. Be forewarned, though: I’m told that there’s always a line to see the pandas, but it’s completely worth the wait.
> It’s easy to get around. The San Diego Zoo is huge, no doubt, but it is incredibly accessible. There is a hop-on/hop-off bus for which you can buy a pass. There is also a guided bus tour that provides an overview of the zoo, which is both helpful for orientation purposes and to assist in pinpointing those places you most want to visit. A sky tram runs from one corner of the park to the opposite corner, which is an easy way to get to the other side quickly; this is $4.00 per ride but is also included in day passes. All that said, San Diego Zoo is very walkable, so with a good pair of shoes, it’s simple to traverse the numerous trails that criss-cross the park.
> Parking is free. The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, which is home to several museums and attractions. Parking is available and free throughout Balboa Park.
More information about the San Diego Zoo can be found here.
My visit to the San Diego Zoo was comped but all opinions are my own.