A gazelle will learn its elder's graceful moves.
It's a balmy, sunny Friday in January. This being San Diego, it could as easily be June. The roses are in bloom, the coral trees aflame with orange blossoms, and on 100 astonishing acres of canyons and mesas smack in the middle of the city, a unique and beautiful microcosm of the earth's wilderness is buzzing, twittering, yelping, growling, hissing, and roaring to life at the San Diego Zoo.
Two young polar bears crash around in the chilly water of their tundra (periodically covered with a layer of manufactured snow). In a lavish reproduction of a clearing in the African tropics, a big daddy gorilla basks on his grassy hillside, surrounded by a white-water stream and his wives and children. Keep walking and you'll find a koala hugging a eucalyptus as he strips it of leaves; a Sumatran orangutan perching on her favorite termite mound while siamangs swing from the trees overhead; a herd of skittish okapis; some barking deer (muntjacs); a paradise tanager with a lime green head; and big, virile Gao Gao, one of the zoo's beloved giant pandas, gnawing greedily on his fresh bamboo.
The sheer quantity of animals here is staggering. Everywhere you turn, there's another creature that you didn't have the slightest interest in seeing because you didn't have the slightest idea that it existed. Sichuan takins. Temminck's tragopans. Bactrian wapiti. The San Diego Zoo currently exhibits some 4,000 animals representing 800 species. To understand how extraordinary this is, consider that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., exhibits 2,700 animals; Portland's Oregon Zoo, 2,100; and the San Francisco Zoo shows 850 animals.
And then there are the plants—700,000 of them, including orchids, cacti, proteas, zamias, aloes, palms of numerous varieties, cycads, bromeliads, African tulip trees. The zoo, it turns out, is also a world-class botanical garden and a critical propagation source for thousands of rare and endangered species. Stroll through it and you are bombarded with—I can think of no other way to put it—the wonders of nature.
No other American zoo has captured the public imagination as this one has. Over the last 30 years, it has become a California tourist attraction on the scale of Disneyland and Yosemite National Park. Three million visitors a year walk through its gates. By contrast, the Los Angeles Zoo, supported by a city three times larger than San Diego, has just over 1 million visitors a year. "There aren't many destination zoos, but San Diego gets huge numbers of tourists," says Steve Taylor, director of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "They're really good, and they've been really good for a long time."
Why, you may ask, San Diego? In 1916, a prosperous local surgeon named Harry Wegeforth (who was originally from Baltimore) was driving through San Diego's Balboa Park when he heard the roar of a lion, one of the animals that had been brought in for the recent Panama-California Exposition.
As Wegeforth recounted the story, a lightbulb went on over his head. "Wouldn't it be splendid," he exclaimed, "if San Diego had a zoo! You know, I think I'll start one."
Within a year, he founded a nonprofit zoological society and began displaying the expo's animals. (The zoo moved to its current location in Balboa Park in 1922.) A dogged and shameless fund-raiser, Wegeforth was the right man to launch the enterprise in a sleepy city. "Watch out for this Wegeforth," financier John D. Spreckels once remarked. "If you're a patient, you get your tonsils or your appendix out. But if you're working on the zoo, you get cut off at the pockets."
Throughout the 1920s and '30s, the zoo's collection grew haphazardly as it bartered local fauna, primarily rattlesnakes and seals, for exotic animals from other institutions. Ranchers donated mountain lions, and naval ships pulling into harbor occasionally dropped off their mascots. But there was nothing to suggest that this sweet, slightly ragtag menagerie would become anything special until 1953, when a veterinarian named Charles Schroeder stepped in as director.
It's hard to overstate Schroeder's role. When he arrived, the zoo had an annual budget of $500,000; when he left in 1972, its budget exceeded $8 million. It was Schroeder who fought for the creation of a children's petting zoo, built the world's first walk-in aviary, and in 1969, against steep odds, started a magnificent sister facility, the Wild Animal Park, just 30 miles to the north. Far from competing with the zoo—the two offer completely different experiences—the animal park cemented San Diego's reputation as zoo capital of America.
Schroeder, wrote New Yorker contributor Emily Hahn in 1967, was "a stocky dynamo of a man who never seems to get tired. " Hahn was underwhelmed by a visit to the zoo in the 1930s: "I have an impression of sandy surroundings, stunted brush, and cages set down here and there like blocks left by a tired child." A return visit in the 1960s dazzled her: "No word of mouth could quite prepare me, and my eyes grew bigger and bigger as we passed along an imposing approach, past myriads of parked cars, to the entrance gate of today's San Diego Zoo. I didn't recollect anything of this palatial estate."
It was, of course, the same property, but transformed by a visionary director into an immaculate, innovative, and richly landscaped park. Schroeder was, to put it mildly, a neat freak. He was famous (and not necessarily loved) for his nightly stroll around the grounds with a notebook in which he scribbled both ideas for new exhibits and complaints about untrimmed hedges, untrimmed hair, and smelly enclosures. Asked how to judge a zoo, he once replied: "The first thing you do is go to the men's bathroom. If it's clean, that's how they treat their animals. If it's dirty, that's how they treat their animals." He was such an admirer of Disneyland's well-scrubbed look that he sent employees on educational field trips to the theme park.
And indeed, one of the first things you notice about the San Diego Zoo is that it is spotless. This is more important than it might seem: Studies have shown that the atmosphere in which people see animals affects how they feel about them.
No, the cages in Schroeder's zoo would definitely not be left lying around like children's blocks. In fact, in Schroeder's ideal zoo there would be no cages at all. He hated wire and anything that created a feeling of estrangement between people and wildlife. He had a particular passion for moats, which give the illusion that there is no barrier between you and, say, an 11,000-pound Indian elephant. On Schroeder's watch, enclosures were perpetually torn up, rebuilt, and, if they didn't work just right—for either visitors or animals—torn up and rebuilt again, using the designs he studied in his travels to zoos around the world.
But it was Schroeder as marketing genius who brought the zoo to national attention. From 1955 to 1970, Zoorama, a popular children's TV show, was filmed there, and Schroeder made sure that no one who watched the program ever saw it rain in San Diego; on drizzly days, he directed the crew to the reptile house. And when Zoorama ended, he found a new way to publicize the zoo: He hired blonde, 18-year-old Joan Embery as the zoo's "goodwill ambassador." Embery and her animals appeared at Rotary club meetings and, starting in 1971, made 100 appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. One day, basically out of the blue, Schroeder began referring to the zoo as "the World Famous San Diego Zoo." Just like that. And it stuck.
With great fame, of course, comes great responsibility. It is one thing to provide high-quality recreation and quite another to accomplish everything that has come to be expected of a modern zoo. You don't have to spend much time talking to zoo professionals to realize that they shape everything they do—and everything you, as a visitor, experience—around conservation. Given the rate at which animals and their habitats are disappearing, it no longer seems proper to run a zoo simply for the amusement of kids eating pink popcorn.
In 1975 the Zoological Society of San Diego, the umbrella organization for the San Diego Zoo, created the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES), which coordinates all of the zoo's extensive research and conservation efforts. It is perhaps most famous for its Frozen Zoo, the largest collection in the world of genetic materials from endangered species. It is a trove for researchers and also functions as a sperm bank for the larger zoo community, helping to ensure the continuation of rare species in captivity and maximizing the genetic diversity of very small populations. Other projects are more straightforward conservation stories. In the 1980s, there were just 27 California condors left on the planet. In conjunction with the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund, CRES trapped the few remaining birds and began to breed them in captivity, where their young had a better chance of survival. In 2000, with the population stabilized and slowly growing, condors were rereleased in Arizona, California, and Mexico. By summer the number of condors in the wild is expected to reach 100, which isn't many, but, as CRES director of conservation and science Alan Dixson says, "It beats extinction."
CRES primarily works behind the scenes. How does the concept of zoo—lions, tigers, and bears on exhibit—mesh with the objectives of animal conservation? "People are much more apt to conserve what they know and love," says Art Risser, director of collections at the San Diego Zoo. The zoo spends enormous amounts of money to make sure that its animals live full lives in comfortable surroundings and that people walk away with a deepened appreciation for them. It is currently completing a $26 million new habitat, Heart of the Zoo, which will resemble a tropical forest where guenons, mandrills, pygmy hippos, and birds live in an uncrowded, naturalistic setting that will, with luck, encourage them to breed. Animal reproduction in captivity is always a dicey proposition, and the willingness of confined animals to mate is one barometer of how comfortable they feel. In 1991, the zoo moved its western lowland gorillas from a cement grotto to pretty green hills with water, trees, boulders, places to hide, and places to play. "It was almost as if the gorillas said, 'This is home,' " Risser notes. In the quarter of a century prior to the move, the gorillas produced just two babies; in the last 13 years, they have had seven.
And happier gorillas, living in a natural setting, inspire more respect from us, the visitors. In his excellent, contentious book A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future, David Hancocks, former director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, describes a 1988 survey done at Australia's Melbourne Zoo. The survey asked visitors to describe how they felt about gorillas after viewing them in the concrete enclosures typical of the day. The words used most frequently: "ugly", "boring", and "stupid". Two years later, when the animals were ensconced in a forest setting, the zoo received a whole different set of responses: "peaceful", "fantastic", and "powerful".
It is easy to lose an hour watching the gorillas at the San Diego Zoo as they play, cuddle, eat, and—occasionally—come very close and look right back at you. Like all zoos, this one is popular with parents and children. But it is sometimes hard to tell who is getting more out of the experience. On a Friday morning, it is the overburdened mothers, with their Starbucks cups, strollers, and bags of Cheerios, who are transfixed by the gorillas on that peaceful hill. The children, being children, seem more interested in climbing on the bronze gorillas near the enclosure and doing somersaults over the railings.
Perhaps this is a zoo that can only be fully appreciated by an adult. It is, after all, hard for a child to understand how rare it is to see a herd of tiny Calamian deer. Or to come across a herd of tawny Bactrian wapiti—presumed extinct in the wild. And you almost have to be an adult to appreciate the gargantuan Andean condor, a terrifying vision with its pink-skinned head and a wingspan the size of a minivan, hopping from a log to tussle furiously with a chunk of bark. And few children will understand that the chance to gaze into the eyes of a mighty silverback gorilla comes perhaps once in a lifetime—and that soon it may never come again at all.
This Zoo's for you
By Heather Lee
Animal exhibits have changed over the years, from thick-barred cages and gloomy cement blocks to multimillion-dollar, multiacre naturalistic presentations. One thing remains the same: Animals continue to drive us wild. More than 100 million people visited U.S. zoos last year. Here's a sampling of some of the best exhibits at the most remarkable zoos around the West.
CATS OF AFRICA, SANTA BARBARA ZOO, SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. Considered one of the finest small zoos in California, this gem is just the right size for kids to explore. Cats of Africa, an airy showcase built directly into the landscape, features lions and black-footed cats, the smallest wild felines in Africa. (805) 962-6310, www.sbzoo.org.
GREAT NORTHWEST, OREGON ZOO, PORTLAND. Spanning ecosystems from the Cascades to the Pacific coast, the Great Northwest section includes mountain goats, a simulated snow cave, sea lions, a tide pool, and Eagle Canyon, the first enclosure to feature salmon and bald eagles together. (503) 226-1561, www.oregonzoo.com.
HUMMINGBIRD AVIARY, ARIZONA- SONORA DESERT MUSEUM, TUCSON, ARIZ. Tucked into this natural history museum, botanical garden, and zoo is an aviary, where seven species of hummingbird fly free, build nests, and rear young. Elsewhere, a nearly two-mile path lined with almost invisible mesh gets you closer than ever to the animals. (520) 883-2702, www.desertmuseum.org.
LIPMAN FAMILY LEMUR FOREST, SAN FRANCISCO ZOO, SAN FRANCISCO. Come eye to eye with leaping lemurs at this 100-acre zoo located in the southwest corner of the city. An elevated boardwalk gives top-notch views of these endangered Madagascan primates at the largest lemur habitat in the country. (415) 753-7080, www.sfzoo.org.
NORTHERN TRAIL, WOODLAND PARK ZOO, SEATTLE. Crawl into a wolf den at this award-winning exhibit built to resemble the cold, rugged regions of the far north. Other highlights not to miss are a bear cave and underwater viewing of grizzlies and river otters. (206) 684-4800, www.zoo.org.
TROPICAL DISCOVERY, DENVER ZOO, DENVER. This 80-acre zoo contains orangutans, a painting rhinoceros named Mshindi, and Tropical Discovery, a rain forest inside a humid glass pyramid with waterfalls, snake-infested mangrove swamps, Maya temple ruins, coral reefs teeming with fish and turtles, and the country's largest indoor Komodo dragon exhibit. (303) 376-4800, www.denverzoo.org.
Photography by Catherine Karnow
This article was first published in May 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information on visiting the San Diego Zoo, call (619) 234-3153 or visit www.sandiegozoo.org. Ask about the AAA discount when purchasing tickets.