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My First US Zoo Trip

Discussion in 'United States' started by DevinL, 7 May 2018.

  1. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Part 6 – Things are Going to Get Better

    From my recent experiences in Seattle I was wary about both walking through rough areas of the city and fraudulent taxi charges. I decided to take a short taxi ride to the Greyhound station and pay my fare with cash.

    Shortly after sitting down at the station, a heated exchange broke out between two men beside me. Greyhound stations tend to have high police presences, and it wasn’t long before an officer came over to mediate and break up tensions. I felt safer than I had in many other downtown Seattle areas.

    In an exuberant voice one of the Greyhound workers proclaimed the arrival of my bus. Waiting at transportation hubs is tedious and I appreciated hearing such an outburst of facetiousness. His colleague promptly apologized, thankfully not in a scornful way, and re-announced the arrival with more professional enunciation.

    For most of my bus ride to Portland it was too dark to see much outside the windows. South of Seattle the land seemed to become more natural and I finally saw stands of towering coniferous trees. It felt more like the Pacific Northwest I had expected to see.

    Before embarking for my trip, my mother had strongly advised me to take a taxi from the Greyhound station in Portland. Apparently, her friend had walked around that area and found it very intimidating. He’s not someone who would spook easily. He’s a night-shift custodian at a strip-mall with a pub. I’ve heard a story about him protecting a woman from attempted rape. It was late, so I heeded their advice and got a taxi ride to my hotel.

    Looking back, it would have been very easy for me to walk or use public transportation to my hotel and it is likely much safer than others had led me to fear. The Greyhound station is adjacent to Union Station and very close to green and yellow line local train stations.

    In Portland I stayed at Hotel Rose, which cost more than my average lodging for this trip. The front desk agent (I unfortunately forgot his name) was ebullient and a great match for the ambience of the hotel. The lobby and other public areas were funky and vibrant. My room had yellow tones that made it feel warm and inviting. There were little humorous touches, like the do not disturb signs that read, “I’m naked (please go away)”. The last day I had been acting and feeling guarded, but after recuperating at my hotel I had a more sanguine temper. I headed out and wandered through downtown Portland that night.

    The next morning, I had a piquant smoked salmon and caper omelette before heading to the Oregon Zoo.

    Portland has a great public transportation system and it was very easy to get to the Oregon Zoo. Washington Park station is just an elevator ride and short walk from the Zoo.

    Even if you have a personal vehicle I still recommend that you use the light rail trains to get to the Zoo. The trains travel through underground tunnels to reach Washington Park station. It’s one of the deepest transit stations in the world! At the station, the tunnel walls are decorated with images of the city and zoo animals in vivid purples and geometric patterns. There’s a long core sample taken from the site on display with marks along its length to indicate periods of Earth’s history and major geological and biological events. A diagram in the elevator illustrates your passage through geological formations and a display dynamically tracks elevation as the elevator rises. By the time I got to the Zoo I had already had an absorbing experience and learned about natural history.

    The Oregon Zoo

    Past the entrance gates at the Oregon Zoo, there’s a plaza with visitor services. From the plaza the first exhibit, Cascade Crest can be seen.

    Mountain goats inhabit Cascade Crest in a simulated alpine landscape of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. A cirque water-feature in the foreground forms a natural exhibit barrier. The grassy exhibit slopes are peppered with rocks and formations as they rise to the center of the exhibit. Artificial snowbanks add further character. Tall basaltic formations punctuate the center of the space to become the focus point of the exhibit. A burrowed view of towering coniferous trees forms a backdrop to the scene. As visitors walk around the exhibit different views into the exhibit emerge. Between viewing areas, a simulated glacier ice cave can be entered. Inside there are models of ice insects that have been enlarged several times their natural size. Pieces of exploration equipment and notes add to the embedded narratives. Cascade Crest a very well-realized immersive exhibit that invites exploration.

    As I moved through the exhibit, different mountain goats became visible. The shaggy white coats of the mountain goats contrasted strikingly with the dark rock formations, and I enjoyed watching them graze in their exhibit.

    Long-term, there are plans (see the Oregon Zoo Master Plan) to turn this exhibit into a rotational space for native carnivores, including cougars, black bears, and wolves. It will be a significant challenge to install adequate containment barriers for cougars without detracting from the open feeling of this exhibit and the carefully managed sight-lines.

    As the pathway travels around Cascade Crest and further into the Zoo visitors view the existing blackbear exhibit on the opposite side. The pathway is significantly elevated here relative to the black bear exhibit. There are a few large trees that the bears can climb to get much closer to visitor’s eye-levels. Further down the path, the bear exhibit crosses under a 100-foot suspension bridge to holding areas somewhat disguised with artificial rock formations. Visitors can look through a large window in a concrete viewing structure for close-up views of bears on top of a rock-work formation. When the bears are lounging under the overhang of the rock-work they would be far less visible. There are also views from the shelter into a netted enclosure for bobcats in the forest. At the other end of the exhibit, visitors can watch the stubby-tailed small felines through a window set in an artificial trunk.

    With more theming here, they could have made the whole viewing structure into a simulated rock-outcrop that visitors enter to get selected up-close views of bears and bobcats.

    The pathway descends past native plants and lofty Douglas fir trees. It was hard to distinguish what had been planned and planted and what was the result of natural reforestation. It’s very beautiful and made me want to return to Oregon one day to see some of the natural forests there.

    Eagle Canyon is beautifully integrated into this scenery. Visitors enter the bald eagle exhibit in an elevated viewing hide. From the open-fronted hide I could see a couple of bald eagles perched high on some branches, a large nest to my right, mature trees, and a stream below. Outside the hide and eagle exhibit, the pathway snakes down the canyon. At one spot an artificial stream complete with salmon sculptures cascades down into grated drains set in the pathway. The water passes under the pathway and to the stream in the eagle exhibit. Visitors re-enter the aviary lower down in a simulated lava-tube. As water falls over the pathway and into the stream it creates a veiled view of the bald eagle exhibit. Salmon, trout, and sturgeon can all be seen underwater sharing the stream within the eagle exhibit. Together the exhibit features create a much more experientially rich exhibit than typical eagle enclosures. Showcasing the bald eagles with fish, water-features, and the native landscape helps convey how they’re all connected and worth preserving.

    Eagle Canyon transitions almost seamlessly into Cascade Stream and Pond. Cascade Stream and Pond won the AZA exhibit award when it opened in 1982 and still holds up well. Several species of turtle, including Western pond turtle, can be seen easily in a well-detailed exhibit. I didn’t see any beavers, but I really enjoyed watching waterfowl dive underwater. It provided an exciting new perspective of a commonly seen group of animals. Otters are great display animals and I enjoyed watching one dive in and out of its pool. The ring-tail was active in an exhibit themed like a miner’s cabin, but the exhibit is taller than the small viewing windows and it was tough to get a good angle to watch the small carnivore. I also saw several exhibits for small species of reptiles and amphibians that are native to the Pacific Northwest. The final exhibit is a walk-through aviary for carrel egrets and more waterfowl.

    The exhibits of native fauna continue with an exhibit for cougars. There were lots of branches and artificial rock ledges for the cougars to climb. They were resting, so I walked over to another viewing area for the black-bear exhibit. From there I watched through the viewing windows as the bears climbed in their sloped exhibit above me. I watched for awhile, but I felt pulled to the condor exhibit.

    I had first noticed the California condors in the distance all the way back by the mountain goat exhibit. Those were my first glimpses ever of California condors and I was anxious to get a better view of the iconic birds that have been saved from the brink of extinction. They were still active when I finally got close to them. I was surprised just how social and complex they seemed to be. A nearby sign titled Smart and Social confirmed my observations.

    California condors are one of the rarest species of birds, but the animals at the nearby Family Farm are some of the most common species of animals. I walked by the farm animals quickly but stopped to take a picture of an outdoor covered enrichment enclosure for housecats. It was a good showcase of how you can get housecats outside, but still protect native wildlife from them. The rest of Family Farm feels too nostalgic. On the map the Great Northwest exhibit complex ends at the Family Farm, but I like to think that it ends with Steller Cove.

    Cascade Crest is on the relatively highest point of the Great Northwest exhibits and Steller Cove is located relatively lower than the other exhibits. The change in exhibit elevations represents a journey from the peaks of the Cascade Mountains to Oregon’s coast.

    I started to explore Steller Cove from the intended exit, but the sequencing still worked well. My first view was of a simulated rocky coastline with a tidepool nestled under the cliffs. The tidepool had a short viewing panel along its length for underwater viewing of fish and coastal invertebrates. The recreated cliffs above aren’t blocky and monolithic; they are complexly shaped and finely detailed. Large coniferous trees and other native vegetation atop the cliffs adds further drama and realism. The cliffs artfully conceal a repurposed building with underwater viewing and hidden life support equipment. It feels like you are passing into an alcove that the pounding waves have carved into the overhanging cliff face.

    Inside the darkened passageways a dramatic underwater view unfolds of swimming pinnipeds. I’ve seen many photos of this exhibit over the years, but I was still impressed by it. Juxtaposed with the dark enclosed viewing areas the pool feels open and intensely blue. The deep pool curves out of view and burrows views from a fish exhibit. It was originally built for Steller sea lion, but now has harbor seals. I watched the harbor seals glide past underwater formations and rise in a bottling position (nearly vertical with just part of the head emerging above water). It was all quite awe-inspiring and one of the most powerful zoo experiences I’ve had.

    As I ascended gradually through the passageways I passed an aquarium for fish and invertebrates with burrowed views of the pinniped exhibit behind. Further on, there’s a small area where the rock ceiling had appeared to collapse. A large tree was growing in the rubble and up the pocketed opening in the ceiling to the sky.

    Emerging out of the building an underwater view unfolds of sea otters backed by rocky cliffs. The sea otter was floating on its back and being fed a bounty of seafood that would threaten the stock of most restaurants!

    The other side of the pathway is bordered by a cut through a museum-quality simulation of an archeological midden. It made me think about how the impacts of our activities accumulate over time.

    Past the sea otters, the path overlooks the pinniped exhibit from land level. From here visitors can view the pinnipeds when they haul out onto land. Light mesh between the pathway and exhibit were important barriers for Steller sea lions, but probably aren’t as necessary for harbor seals. The exhibit curves out of view and behind the sea otter exhibit where a fallen log forms a barrier, but still provides burrowed views of the pinniped exhibit from the sea otter viewing area.

    The final part of Steller Cove I saw was designed to be the entrance. An artificial rock formation planter arches over the pathway to join the cliff faces behind the animal exhibits with those on the opposite side of the pathway.

    Steller Cove and Cascade Crest were both designed by the Portico Group and were guided by similar principles. They are both highly detailed immersive recreations of Oregon’s ecosystems. This focus on specific habitats is responsible for much of the embedded narrative features in the exhibits and seems to have inspired the designers to create compelling details. Features like rock ceilings that have partially collapsed.

    Humans living in predominantly built environments, especially cities, aren’t exposed much to natural features. Without those experiences, we can’t read natural landscapes as well. When we are unable to interpret natural features, we miss a whole bunch of interesting stories. Without those stories nature is less interesting, and we are less likely to appreciate it. If we don’t appreciate nature it will be lost in favor of satisfying our other needs.

    I really like exhibits like Steller Cove and Cascade Crest because all the details and embedded narration convey the complexity of nature and encourage people to look more closely at their surroundings for hidden stories. It made me want to explore Oregon!

    Some people might argue that most visitors move much too quickly through attractions to notice and appreciate such things. The Disney themes parks and now the Universal theme parks were designed around a much different assumption; that people do notice and appreciate details and embedded storytelling. I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates Steller Cove.

    In the Oregon Zoo Comprehensive Capital Master Plan 2011, Steller Cove will be phased out over time in favor of a South American exhibit sequence. The move probably has a lot to do with the Zoo’s push towards becoming a model of environmental sustainability and planning future developments to reduce their environmental footprint. Steller Cove probably takes a lot of energy and water to maintain. It might be difficult to replace the existing infrastructure with more environmentally sustainable features.

    I would hate to see Steller Cove demolished. Hopefully, they will be able to incorporate more environmentally responsible features without replacing the whole exhibit complex. Construction takes a lot of resources too.

    On maps, Steller Cove is considered part of the Pacific Shores complex at the Zoo. Besides an empty polar bear exhibit and a construction site for Polar Passage (the new polar bear exhibit), there are also Humboldt penguins. The Humboldt penguins were temporally in part of the old polar bear exhibit while the Penguinarium is under renovation. In their temporary home they have a deep pool with underwater viewing, but the water was very cloudy because the filtration wasn’t designed for oily penguin feathers.

    Large portions of Primate Forest were also under renovation. After the renovations Primate Forest will be split into areas for Asian and African primates that connect to their appropriate zoogeographic exhibit zones. The Oregon Zoo is trying to save on construction costs by simultaneously building Polar Passage, new primate exhibits, and an expansion for rhinos in the former hippo exhibit.

    The renovations to Primate Forest are really needed! I was shocked to see the indoor gibbon exhibit. The walls were white, and it felt like a surgery room. In my other reviews I argued that ideally animal display areas would be natural, but that’s not always practical and it might be better to have some indoor spaces on show than hidden. I still believe that. All animal areas should still have some natural features like substrates, branches, and plants. Those natural furnishings are great for animal welfare, not just aesthetics. Any place in public view cannot completely ignore aesthetics and how those influence visitor’s emotions and experiences. Changing the paint color may not make much of a difference for the animals, and it may make it harder to notice dirt, but it does have a huge impact on visitor perceptions. At one time, visitors may have appreciated how clean and sanitary the space looked, but times change. Part of the problem too is consistency of presentation. It can be jarring to see natural animal habitats and then unnatural indoor spaces.

    Most of the other exhibits in Primate Forest were screened or under construction. I watched a black tree monitor climb around its exhibit and cotton-top tamarins in three small connected exhibits but can’t remember much else.

    Outside I saw Red Ape Reserve, the outdoor exhibit for orangutans and white-cheeked gibbons. The enclosure is netted and feels horizontally orientated. Part of the viewing is through an artificial tree trunk, no doubt inspired by the much more compelling and appropriate exhibit for gorillas at the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest. There were lots of furnishings like bamboo sway poles, ropes, logs for climbing, and a large artificial tree trunk with cavities for enrichment. The orangutans were lounging above me in some nets. Portland has a great climate for supporting lush vegetation and tall trees and Red Ape Reserve failed to capitalize on those opportunities. Overall, the exhibit seemed like it was designed more for gorillas than orangutans.

    After the disappointing primate exhibits I headed for Elephant Lands unsure what to expect. Elephant Lands is the most ambitious single project in the Oregon Zoo’s history. The $57 million project opened in stages and was complete by 2015. It won Top Honors in the AZA’s Exhibit Award. However, I’ve heard that it’s underwhelming and falls short of elephant exhibits at the North Carolina Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.

    Elephant Lands stretches around the east end of the Zoo. There are three long connected outdoor yards, a large open indoor exhibit for socializing (the Forest Hall), and another large attached building for holding.

    I believe I saw Sung-surin and Samudra in the North Meadow and Chendra, Rose-Tu, and Lily in the other exhibits. The elephants were separated during my visit, but they came close to the gates between the exhibits a couple of times and exchanged audible and visible communications.

    Elephant Lands was designed to encourage walking behavior from the elephants. I watched them for awhile and I found it hard to keep up with them! Over twenty timed feeders are spread throughout the exhibit and the elephants continually moved around checking them.

    There’s a variety of types of feeders too that encourage different foraging behaviors. Overhead feeders require the elephants to reach up with their trunks. I watched one of the elephants dig up sand at a partially buried feeder to uncover food.

    Sand substrates throughout the exhibit add to the existing topographic variation. I saw the elephants walk up and down sand hills. In the Forest Hall I saw large tire tracks in the sand and suspect that equipment is used to manipulate the sand into new formations. The elephants also seemed to enjoy pushing the sand around and throwing it onto their backs.

    Using sand substrates extensively may have some negative consequences. Sand can mix with hay the elephants pick up from the ground and be ingested. Wild elephants purposefully consume some clay and silt and unintentionally ingest substrates with their food, but they may not be able to ingest large quantities of sand. I’ve read reports that Little Diamond, an African elephant at the North Carolina Zoo, died from sand ingestion that impacted the large intestine ('Little Diamond,' NC Zoo's long-time elephant, dies). Hopefully, this doesn’t become a concern at the Oregon Zoo.

    I didn’t see the elephants swim, but they have a deep pool outside that can accommodate several elephants at once. They also have access to a shallow pool.

    I followed the elephants into the Forest Hall. Inside, they eagerly passed around an artificial tree testing holes with their trunks. Some of the mesh feeders inside had hay and treats that the elephants pulled out with their trunks. Lily, the youngest elephant reached into one of the holes to suck up water and spray into her mouth.

    The Zookeepers came down from the artificial tree for a positive reinforcement presentation with the elephants. Using protected contact, the keepers encouraged the elephants to perform a variety of behaviors. For opening their mouths and lifting their feet one by one the elephants got fruit and vegetables. The keepers closely inspect the mouths and feet of the elephants to monitor condition and keep on top of potential health concerns. The elephants got additional treats for climbing on top of logs, lifting logs, and performing other exercises. While this was going on an interpreter explained how the Oregon Zoo takes care of their elephants and pointed out some features that make elephants special. A large crowd watched the proceedings intently from the auditorium overlooking the exhibit. I thought it was a great way for the Zoo to show the public how they care for their animals.

    Above the auditorium there are interpretive displays about elephants and cultural artifacts that represent cultural relationships with elephants. I overheard one kid say, “why would people want to kill elephants, they’re awesome”.

    Undeniably, the Forest Hall feels architectural and fails to present the elephants in a naturally landscaped context. The name probably refers to the forests outside the building that can be seen through large windows that sweep across the wall behind the elephant’s space. In Portland the elephants probably have access to the outdoors almost year-round (I’ve seen a video of one of their elephants playing in the snow) but need the indoor exhibits to help cope with colder weather.

    The building is designed to give the elephants access to the outdoors and remain environmentally sustainable. High efficiency heat recovery and a geothermal plant reduce the building heating load by 95% and a solar thermal system heats water.

    I followed the elephants back outside.

    The outdoor exhibits don’t have a blade of grass and look a bit barren. Elephants have grey skin and lose a bit of their magnificence in a duller colored landscape like Elephant Lands. That’s the biggest shortcoming of Elephant Lands; it fails to provide a truly compelling natural context for the elephants.

    Elephant Lands is much more successful at creating a complex space that encourages the animals to move around considerably and display a variety of behaviors. The multiple spaces can temporarily separate different animals physically, while letting them remain in contact. I spent over an hour enjoying my visit with the elephants at Elephant Lands.

    I got lunch at AfriCafe, which has a dining area overlooking the upper levels of the Howard Vollum aviary for African birds. I enjoyed watching the birds but struggled to eat my inedible veggie burger.

    After lunch, I visited Predators of the Serengeti. Years earlier this was the Alaskan Tundra. Significant renovations repurposed it to display predator species from Serengeti National Park. A few large evergreen trees are all that remains that hints at the past theming of this area.

    A large artificial baobab tree in the plaza serves as an orientation point and establishes the African theming. From the plaza the path descends into Predators of the Serengeti past ornamental grasses, shrubs, and kopje rock formations. Life-size sculptures of a lion family invite touch and photo opportunities. An elevated viewing area with windows overlooks a lion exhibit set on a grassy knoll with a few wide-spaced deciduous trees. Heated artificial rocks on the knoll provide the lions a highpoint where they can scan their surroundings. The knoll is ringed by a barrier made of more artificial rockwork. The pathway descends further from here into a sheltered pathway and exhibit building disguised by more kopje formations and thorny-stemmed shrubs and trees. The sheltered pathway travels around a large netted caracal exhibit. On the opposite side of the pathway there are large windows that overlook outdoor exhibits for lions, African wild dogs, and cheetahs.

    At first all the animals were resting. The two cheetahs were relaxing right up against the windows. The window is set within a kopje, so there is a strong sense of shared space. One cheetah rose up and paused looking directly at me for awhile. Then its lithe frame stretched as it strode away. I followed it to the next viewing area where it paused again to look intently at me. Nearby, the window bisects a safari vehicle that passes into the cheetah exhibit. The cheetah turned by the vehicle and walked up a grassy slope where it met the other cheetah under a rock ledge. From there they climbed on top of rocks and logs to survey their surroundings. I turned around and the caracal was very active as well.

    The caracal was walking around its enclosure in an exploratory manner. It would often pause and cock its tufted ears up. Using its long hind legs, the cat effortlessly jumped on and off logs and artificial earthen banks as it traversed the exhibit. The caracal didn’t seem too interested in the acrylic tubes in part of the exhibit, but I read somewhere that one of the caracals loves to watch dwarf mongoose pass through the tubes. Most of the time I watched the caracal I was the only one there. Visitors had gathered nearby to watch the lions.

    The lions were roaring and had descended their grassy knoll to the shady areas by the viewing shelter. I watched them for awhile before they climbed back up to their perches on the hill. Nearby the African wild dogs were starting to settle down after an outburst of activity. There was just too much going on at once for me to catch everything!

    Even the reptiles were active. The massive African rock python was moving slowly around by caterpillar (rectilinear) progression. In jerky movements the veiled chameleon slowly climbed through its exhibit.

    The exhibit building with reptiles also has spiders, tarantulas, scorpions, and dwarf mongoose. You can crawl under the latter exhibit and pop up into in a bubble window surrounded by scurrying mongooses.

    Predators of the Serengeti, like the other exhibits at the Oregon Zoo, has exceptional exhibit interpretation. The focus in this exhibit are the challenges predators face, both natural and human induced, and adaptations or responses to those challenges. My favorite interactive feature in Predators of the Serengeti is a thermographic video screen and camera above a replica of a python head. It shows the heat signatures from visitors that pythons would perceive! Pythons use infrared sensing to hunt their prey and possibly for thermoregulation and prey avoidance. In addition to the many interactive interpretive features there are clear signs with interesting information. Informative panels explore how the Zoo’s conservation projects mitigate conflicts that threaten lions, African hunting dogs, and cheetahs. Visitors can donate to these projects through wishing wells. You could spend a lot of time delving deeper into the interpretive features, but they’re also readable at a quicker pace.

    If the interpretive features weren’t so engaging, then I probably would have missed them that day. The predators were so interesting to watch! Together, they showed a variety of locomotion behaviors. Predators spend a lot of time searching for their prey. I saw a lot of the carnivores in Predators of the Serengeti make good use of high vantage points in their exhibits to scan the surroundings.

    The loop through Predators of the Serengeti toke me back to the plaza where I headed to the Howard Vollum aviary. Within the aviary I walked among the tropical African birds and vegetation I had viewed earlier from the AfriCafe. The cylindrical building has a transparent domed top for natural light. Circular floor plans like this are great for walk-through exhibits. I saw some of the birds fly in loops around the space looking for good spots to perch. The aviary is less than 3,000 square feet, but it seems bigger, especially from inside. In summer, the pathways in the aviary are probably too small to handle high guest volumes. It wasn’t too busy on my visit, so I had more time to stop and watch the birds.

    Species in the Howard Vollum aviary included: red-billed hornbill; golden-breasted starling; speckled mouse-bird; speckled pigeon; bearded barbet; white-cheeked turaco; Allen’s gallinule; superb starling; purple glossy starling; hamerkop; oriole warbler; magpie shrike; Hottentot teal; African pygmy goose; and spur-winged lapwing.

    Outside, the rest of the Africa Savanna exhibits can be explored. The relatively elevated visitor pathway overlooks four open habitats set in front of artificial riverbanks. Two of the exhibits were empty to prepare for renovations that will expand the rhino exhibit into the former hippo exhibit. The other two exhibits are larger with grassy expanses and scattered trees. The first of these held bonteboks and Speke’s gazelle on my visit and the other had giraffe and southern ground hornbill. A set of exhibits called Treetops separates these two ungulate exhibits. There’s an outdoor netted exhibit for DeBrazza’s monkeys, but most of the exhibits are within a building. The pathway here is elevated and it enters the building on its second floor. This is a great way to reduce the profile of tall buildings and a technique that I also saw at Trail of Vines at the Woodland Park Zoo. The indoor giraffe exhibit is at ground level, but the exhibits for small animals are on the second floor of the building and level with the elevated pathway. I remember an aviary for birds, a naked mole rat exhibit and several exhibits of reptiles. Past the giraffes, the pathway enters the Africa Rainforest.

    In the Africa Rainforest the pathways and exhibits are surrounded by lush vegetation. African crested porcupines were in a small exhibit between simulated earth-banks. Low panels in the front and back of the exhibit are topped with artificial fallen branches. The Swamp building was closed for renovations, but the large outdoor aviary attached to the Swamp was still open. Colorful lesser flamingos are the most spectacular birds, but there were also sacred ibis, hadada ibis, red-crested pochard, and white-faced whistling duck. Visitors cross the aviary on a boardwalk that travels over a shallow water feature. A nearby netted outdoor enclosure holds guereza colobus monkeys and Allen’s swamp monkeys. It’s themed with large buttress tree trunks and a waterfall that tumbles down rock-work. The exhibit is lightly planted within. I watched the colobus monkeys bound through the exhibit with their white tails flashing behind them. The final exhibit holds dozens of bats, including straw-colored fruit bats, Egyptian fruit bats, and Rodrigues flying foxes. It was captivating to watch as they climbed around the exhibit feeding on fruit.

    The Nature Exploration Station is a far less conventional zoo attraction than Africa. Together with classrooms, a coffee café, and a meeting space for presentations about nature, the Nature Exploration Station is part of the Education Center. The arced form of the buildings looks woven together like a wasp nest. The Education Center was designed to be a regional center of conservation. Inside the Nature Exploration Station there are educational displays, a conservation lab for rearing Western pond turtles, and an insect zoo. Interpretation is centered on exploring nature in Oregon and making environmentally friendly choices in your daily life.

    Compared to the other components of the Education Center, the Nature Exploration Station is a bit superfluous. The Great Northwest showcases the beauty of Oregon’s natural areas. Eagle Canyon/Cascade Stream and Pond has a conservation lab and exhibits of Western pond turtles. The former polar bear exhibit has an interpretive that encourages guests to make 10 changes in their everyday lives to reduce their carbon footprint. The educational displays in the Nature Exploration center are interesting, but the Oregon Zoo also has great interpretive displays throughout the animal exhibit complexes.

    Amur Cats is across from the Education Center and includes exhibits for Amur tigers and Amur leopards. A steep moat surrounds the front and sides of the Amur tiger exhibit. Three viewing areas with windows are slightly set into the exhibit, but do not provide up-close views. The holding area behind the exhibit is partially themed with rock-work, but it still has an architectural form. The Amur leopard exhibit was a more successful renovation. Leopards can come right up to the viewing shelter and their exhibit is densely planted like Amur mixed forests.

    Significant parts of the Oregon Zoo were under renovation during my visit, but I still easily spent six hours at this medium-sized Zoo and really enjoyed it. The bulk of my visit and experiences came from three zones, the Great Northwest (including Steller Cove), Africa, and Elephant Lands. Both the Great Northwest and Africa are large zones with several immersive exhibits built over the years. I had lots of engaging experiences with the animals and landscapes. Elephant lands is less immersive, but I have never watched elephants at one place for so long. I don’t attribute that solely to luck, but rather to an exhibit that was designed to encourage walking and other behaviors from the elephants. In just a couple of years (2020), a new polar bear exhibit, new primate exhibits, and an expanded rhino exhibit will all open and the Oregon Zoo will be even better!
    snowleopard likes this.
  2. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member 15+ year member Premium Member

    1 Dec 2007
    Abbotsford, B.C., Canada
    Thanks for another very long, detailed review. I've visited Oregon Zoo on 6 occasions and so it was a delight to learn of another person's opinion. The embedding of a handful of photos into the text works very well but I have no idea how you did this trip without a personal vehicle. I drive everywhere and I cannot fathom constantly waiting around for trams, buses and other public methods of transportation. Each to their own, but maybe on your next big trip you'll have your own vehicle or rent a car to speed things up considerably.
  3. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Part 7 – The Famous San Diego Zoo

    When I left the Oregon Zoo I had about two and a half hours to get to the airport and board my plane before liftoff. At Washington Park station I walked between the platforms but failed to find a ticket machine. A red line train headed to the airport screeched to a stop before me and I boarded. In the train I felt guilty for not paying fare, but I didn’t have much time to waste. If I disembarked from the train it would be at least 15 minutes for the next train. The guilt was too much though, so I got off after a couple of stations to grab a ticket. On the next train I knew that I was cutting things close. I had less than an hour before boarding. Like a decompressed spring I bolted out of the train. Fortunately, the lines moved quickly through security and I made it to my plane on time.

    Whenever I take a flight I try to get a window seat. Portland was a bit cloudy, so I couldn’t see Mount Hood, but the smaller Tualatin mountains were visible rising by the city center. Another notable feature was Sturgeon Lake, which encompasses much of a large fluvial island. As the plane approached the San Francisco International Airport beautiful pink ponds became visible. The color comes from countless Dunaliella micro-algae in the man-made salt ponds. The color of the natural wetlands in the San Francisco Bay is less remarkable, but the waterways have a compelling dendritic network.

    I passed time during my short layover at San Francisco International Airport by looking for artwork in the terminal. My favorite installation was a series of black and white circles illuminated with colorful lights that spun and changed color in response to the motion of people.

    It was dark during the flight to San Diego and late when the plane touched down. At an information desk I asked the volunteers about public transport options to my hotel. They hadn’t even heard of my hotel and it wasn’t in their books. I found the hotel address in my e-mails and they were shocked that I had chosen to stay in Chula Vista while visiting San Diego. One of the volunteers could see that I was stressed, so she offered to drop me off at my hotel because it was on her way home.

    I was initially drawn to the hotel from photos of the charming Art Deco facade. It was one of the best visitor reviewed accommodations in the San Diego area and affordable too. I booked two nights before even leaving Canada.

    It was close to 11pm when I got dropped off at the El Primero hotel. I felt guilty about arriving so late. The owner, Pie, was welcoming though and never once mentioned the time. The next morning, I had complementary breakfast in the beautiful historic courtyard. A Canadian flag had been placed under the hotel sign to mark my arrival. Both the owners are incredibly warm people and I got a bit caught up talking to them.

    I wound up missing a bus to downtown San Diego and I was anxious to get to my destination, so I asked for a taxi to the San Diego Zoo.

    The San Diego Zoo

    I’ve wanted to visit the San Diego Zoo for years. I still have some fond memories of the Zoo from a visit when I was a young child.

    The San Diego Zoo is marketed as world-class and one of the best zoos in the world. It’s one of the few internationally known zoos and a major tourist destination. It attracts people who don’t typically plan their vacations around zoos. As a zoo fan, a visit to the San Diego Zoo felt like an essential part of my travel plans through the Western US.

    At the main entrance I was greeted by a giant bronze sculpture of Rex the lion in a dynamic leaping pose. Just a single paw rests on the ground. I walked under and around the sculpture astonished that it could be balanced on such a small point. The sculpture celebrates the beginnings of the San Diego Zoo. Harry Wedgeforth was inspired to form the Zoo when he saw a lion named Rex left behind after the Panama-California Exposition. The impression I got from the sculpture was that the Zoo celebrates its animals. It’s a great introduction.

    Inside the Zoo, I headed for Lost Forest. Lost forest is a collection of exhibits in the center of the Zoo all themed around tropical forests. The whole area has been planted extensively with trees and lush tropical vegetation. It’s sited on a mesa and canyon. All the exhibits within Lost Forest have been renovated since 1988. Different projects have created a complex network of paths and it is difficult to plot a path to see everything without having to backtrack.

    I turned off Treetops Trail onto Orangutan Trail. Under a viewing shelter tall windows overlook two partially enclosed primate habitats. Each enclosure has a large artificial tropical tree and burrowed views of dense tropical vegetation on the mesa slopes behind. One of the enclosures had an impressively large troop of silvered leaf langurs.

    Orangutans and siamangs share the next exhibit on the Orangutan Trail, Absolutely Apes. Visitors watch the apes through 110-foot long plexiglass windows. Rubble mulch in the viewing areas soften the floors and provide a more permeable medium to support living trees. The trees and artificial bamboo poles in the viewing areas help provide continuity with the animal exhibit. Inside the exhibit there are artificial bamboo poles, metallic climbing structures, and a few protected trees. A moat that forms the barrier at the back of the exhibit is hidden by the sloping face of the mesa. The metallic poles and the unnecessary rockwork in the exhibit detract from the beautiful burrowed view of vegetation beyond the exhibit.

    Absolutely Apes does have beautiful backdrops of vegetation, but it fails to capture the feeling of the natural habitat of orangutans. Orangutans inhabit dense rainforests. At the San Diego Zoo the orangutans and siamangs are in a relatively open exhibit with views of denser vegetation beyond. Locating the exhibit within one of the canyons at the Zoo would have been more evocative of orangutan’s natural habitat because the views would have been more closed and intimate like those in a rainforest.

    Locating the orangutan exhibit on the sloped wall of a mesa or in a valley at the Zoo would have also provided some great viewing opportunities. Pathways could have extended out from the mesa to the treetops on the mesa slopes. With tall climbing structures the orangutans could climb to be at eye-level with the visitors on elevated boardwalks.

    After watching the orangutans, I went to Parker Aviary. The central support poles in the aviary form a few connected tents of netting that are unobtrusive and somewhat organic in overall form. Inside the walk-through aviary there are dense plantings that further obscure the aviary structures. Originally part of the Southeast Asian exhibits, the aviary now houses Neotropical birds. The highlight for me was an orange and black cock-of-the-rock that landed on a handrail just a few feet from me. I also enjoyed watching darting Inca terns and a pair of sunbitterns sunbathing in the treetops above me. A smaller netted space attached to the walk-through aviary provides more privacy for birds and I glimpsed a large curassow there. Looking back, the Parker Aviary was one of the highlights of my visit to the San Diego Zoo.

    I had high expectations for the next exhibit, Gorilla Tropics. I’ve heard that it’s one of the best gorilla exhibits in the United States.

    I first viewed the exhibit from a bridge overlooking a series of waterfalls. Water crashes from the gunite formations that form the back barrier of the gorilla exhibit to a stream winding around the exhibit before tumbling again by the visitor bridge. The exhibit space rises to the center in steps separated by gunite formations, which helps integrate the back barrier with the exhibit space. The steps provide opportunities for individual gorillas to somewhat separate themselves from others in the troop, which is important for reducing their stress. Logs between the steps provide some climbing opportunities. A few scattered trees in the exhibit provide shade. Gorillas appreciate having overhead cover in their exhibits, so I would have liked to see the exhibit have a more extensive tree canopy. Besides the trees there were a few other plants during my visit, but most of the exhibit was covered in grass. Additional understory plantings would increase enclosure complexity and naturalism. I’ve seen photos of this exhibit that were taken years ago when the exhibit was more heavily planted. Over time, it looks like it has become more open. Now the exhibit looks much more like a scenic garden than wild animal habitat.

    I passed by another viewing area in favor of the primary viewing area- a shelter with long windows. This viewing area is nicely tiered to accommodate lots of visitors and well shaded to prevent glare on the windows. Relative to the viewing structure the gorilla exhibit is elevated nicely to showcase the gorillas. The gorilla family was clustered around the viewing shelter during my visit. I suspect that they spend most of their time in this area based on wear patterns in the exhibit. This area of the exhibit is much less scenic than the viewing overlooking the waterfalls. On one side of the exhibit I could see part of the holding building covered with simple murals. If the viewing angles and experiences were better considered here the San Diego Zoo could have created a more powerful experience in the primary viewing area for their gorilla exhibit.

    From Gorilla Tropics it is just a few feet to a viewing shelter with some Monkey Trails and Forest Tales exhibits. One side is somewhat hidden and has a series of terrariums and aquariums set into a wall facing the inside of the shelter. My interest in these displays was overshadowed by the more dramatic pair of exhibits on the other side of the shelter. Both have tall glass windows along their lengths with underwater and land views of well vegetated streamside exhibits. The first exhibit had slender-snouted crocodiles and the second was a mixed species display with pygmy hippopotamus, cichlids, and wolf’s guenon. The pygmy hippos were resting, but the guenons were swiftly bounding around the branches. These exhibits are in a central location and some of the best at the San Diego Zoo, so I wound up returning to them a couple more times that day.

    I headed back to Treetops Way to see the collection of smaller aviaries that I should have visited after coming out of Parker Aviary. These aviaries have an amazing collection of bird species. I believe all the birds were from Southeast Asia and Australasia. Some notable birds I saw were horned parakeets, bird-of-paradise, and Micronesian kingfisher. It was frustrating to try to see or photograph many of the birds through the mesh and I spent much less time here than I thought I would.

    Back on Monkey Trails and Forest Tales (lower level from Treetops Way) I also experienced some problems watching and photographing the primates and other animals. It was difficult to get a good angle to photograph the babirusa from the elevated visitor boardwalk that travels over their connected exhibits. I kept on hoping that the primate exhibits would have open viewing or windows instead of just mesh, but that’s only the case for the one exhibit by the gorillas. Regardless, it was still exciting to get close to a group of black-crested mangabeys grooming one another. I also enjoyed watching a large group of tufted capuchins crack open nuts. The lower Monkey Trails and Forest Tales pathway connects to Tiger Trail and Tiger River.

    Tiger River is a Southeast Asian landscape immersion exhibit complex. It’s strategically located in a steep, shady canyon that heightens the sense of travelling down a dried river bed. The pathway meanders past diverse and lush plantings of thousands of specimens (over 5,000 individual plants and 400 species when it opened in 1988). When it’s busy the pathway is probably too narrow, but that wasn’t a concern during my visit. The first exhibit I saw was a cleverly designed aviary for passerine birds, including Critically Endangered blue-crowned laughing thrush. A well-detailed simulated mud-bank passes by the pathway and into the exhibit. Plantings in the foreground and within the aviary increase the sense of immersion. Nearby was a crocodilian exhibit that I believe held two Chinese alligators on my visit. They were mating. Fishing cats have an exhibit with: tall simulated mud-banks; high areas for perching; plants to hide among; water features with different depths for fishing; and a network of branches to climb. The Malayan tapir exhibit was probably much better when it originally opened. Now there is an obtrusive glass and metal barrier in front of a dry-moat. It is a shame that they didn’t just change the dimensions of the dry-moat to make it a better barrier. Other exhibits in the complex include: a marsh aviary; a pheasant aviary; a small indoor aviary; two glass enclosed small exhibits for birds; and a glass enclosed exhibit for pythons. The feature attraction of Tiger River though is, of course, the tiger exhibit.

    Malayan tigers at Tiger River have a complex, multi-leveled exhibit with several viewing areas for the public. Large simulated mud-banks form many of the exhibit barriers and create levels within the exhibit. The lowest level viewing area has tall windows. Higher up there’s an open view overlooking the exhibit from atop an exhibit barrier wall. The fence at the back of the exhibit was originally intended to be concealed with vegetation, but now it’s mostly unscreened. Vegetation was removed and cut to provide another viewing area behind the exhibit. Most animals become stressed when their enclosure is enclosed by visitor viewing areas and this other viewing area wasn’t necessary. The exhibit used to feature working misters that would have added to the ambiance of a tropical waterway. Years ago, this would have been an exceptional exhibit for tigers, but it has lost some of its lustre since then. Tiger River is still easily one of the best areas at the San Diego Zoo.

    The next area in the canyon, Ituri Forest, starts out OK. Looking out from the edge of the viewing area, I had a clear view of an okapi and a black duiker among large trees with a simulated cut bank separating the exhibit from the steep vegetated slopes of the mesa behind. Elsewhere in the exhibit, the fence barriers are too visible, and the exhibit isn’t as attractive. The trees in the okapi exhibit form a nice backdrop for Hippo Beach. From viewing windows stretching 105 feet, visitors can watch the river hippos walk underwater. Unlike many pools for hippopotamus, the water was clear and reminded me of the crystal blue waters of a resort pool. Unfortunately, the hippos were resting, but I have seen them prance underwater elsewhere and it is always an awesome sight! There wasn’t enough room to hold a pod of hippos (a group) like I’ve seen at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or any grazing space.

    The rest of Ituri Forest is a further fall from the standards set in Tiger River. There’s a simple rectangular aviary for African birds. On one side of the pathway there’s a mixed species exhibit for spotted-necked otter, Allen’s swamp monkey, and red-tailed guenon. The mix of species here is really appealing, and the animals have a lot of space, but otherwise the design is poor. Viewing is from an elevated pathway that’s set significantly higher than the exhibit and forces visitors to look down at the otters and monkeys playing with each other. The barrier at the back of the exhibit is very crude. The monkeys have minimal climbing structures. Throughout the exhibit there are several streams that are designed to look natural with rockwork, but the pattern of streams looks unnatural on the site. The only plants in the exhibit are grass and a single species of shrub. Compared to the very diverse plantings in Tiger River this paucity of diversity is very noticeable. The other side of the pathway has a mixed species exhibit with red river hogs, and the otters and monkeys also seen in the opposite exhibit. Once again, the mix of species is great, but the design is poor. It obviously tries to be natural with the simulated mudbanks, but the layout is unnatural and feels very forced. The branches and other features added for the monkeys make it look cluttered and messy. I backtracked through Ituri forest to see more of the Lost Forest.

    Scipps Aviary is significantly more natural than Ituri Forest. It was built almost a century ago in 1923! It was remodeled in 1958 to become a walk-through exhibit and remodeled again in 1991 with wider pathways. The aviary basically has a flat roof, but it’s built on the side of a steeply sloped mesa, so the vertical space within the aviary increases downhill. A water feature in the center of the aviary tumbles down the mesa slopes and collects in flatter areas to form pools. Over the years the plantings have matured significantly and there are many large trees within the aviary. Elevated pathways allow guests to move through the tree-tops and watch birds in the canopy. There are a lot of birds to look out for! On my visit there were about 40 species of African birds. There is so much to see at the San Diego Zoo though, so I didn’t have time to spot more than a handful of species.

    By Scripps aviary there are several exhibits for African animals that were completed after Gorilla Tropics. There are three netted enclosures for birds, and two larger netted exhibits for Angolan black and white colobus monkeys and crowned eagles. The pathway ascends next to the colobus monkey exhibit for views from both ground level and looking into the top half of the tall exhibit. On my visit the young colobus monkeys were playing around a palm and trying to hit one another with the massive fronds. At the crowned eagle exhibit, I watched the majestic birds of prey at eye-level from the elevated pathway. The largest exhibit in the area is for bonobos (pygmy chimpanzee). Their exhibit is set up similarly to the gorilla exhibit, but it is less scenic. Tall rockwork formations encircle the exhibit and create a higher tiered level behind the exhibit with dense tropical plantings. Another similar formation passes between the barrier formations to create two tiers within the exhibit. Branches and bamboo sway poles lean against the central formation to create climbing opportunities between the two exhibit levels. Several palms with sinuous trunks are within the exhibit, but some of them have lost all their leaves. The scattered palms and verdant grass within the exhibit create a much more open space than the dense tropical plantings behind and above the exhibit. Viewing areas consist of large windows set within the rockwork formation barrier at the front of the exhibit. A glass fronted exhibit for small birds is nestled into the front of the rockwork barrier. Rockwork is too visually dominant throughout the bonobo and bird exhibits, but it would have helped to have a little under the windows where the smooth walls reduce the immersion. Unfortunately, the bonobos were all asleep. They are such a rarely displayed and interesting species, so I regret not coming back to see them again.

    I backtracked to enter another pathway through Scripps Aviary and entered the higher-level pathway through Monkey Trails and Forest Tales. The two levels of pathways through this exhibit are a great way to give visitors different perspectives of the same exhibits. From the treetops the guenons and capuchin monkeys were more visible than they had been from ground level. Excluding the more complex pygmy hippo/guenon exhibit, the other five primate enclosures and two bird aviaries are quite simple. They are rectangular netted enclosures surrounded by bamboo, bananas and other lush vegetation. Their best design feature are the large living trees in the enclosures that pass through the roofs via rings and tower over the netted exhibit space. Branches and poles create additional climbing opportunities within the exhibits. Overall, these exhibits are quite successful, but I would have liked to see some viewing windows and more plants within the exhibits. Descending the visitor pathway brought me to the flamingos, the final exhibit on my loop through the Lost Forest.

    Flamingos inhabit an open picturesque exhibit with sandy beaches, shallow ponds, and a lush backdrop of tropical vegetation. It is not representative of the much more barren large alkaline or saline lakes that flamingos prefer in the wild but paints a pretty picture that’s appealing to visitors. This prominent exhibit by the entrance of the Zoo likely inspired many similar flamingo exhibits at other zoos. To prevent escape many of the birds in open exhibits have been pinioned or had their wings clipped. These procedures can impair the flamingos from performing courtship displays and other behaviors. A good alternative to open exhibits like the one at San Diego is the walk-through flamingo aviary I saw just a day earlier at the Oregon Zoo. That aviary appeared to have soft netting and used dense bamboo plantings around the aviary to prevent the flamingos from colliding into the netting. I hardly noticed that I was inside an aviary there. The other large flying birds at the Oregon Zoo flamingo exhibit also added excitement and a more dynamic exhibit.

    Lost Forest is a large exhibit complex with more individual animal exhibits than the entire facility of my local Calgary Zoo! The natural mesa and valley in the area present great design opportunities, which were used well in Tiger River, Scripps Aviary, and Owens Aviary. If everything had been completed at or above the standards of those three areas, then Lost Forest would have been incredible. Unfortunately, they weren’t. I walked away having really enjoyed visiting the Lost Forest but couldn’t help but think what it could have been like.

    After having seen so many animal exhibits already, I found it enjoyable to walk through the tranquil Japanese gardens by the Warner Center and recharge before heading for the Outback exhibits.

    Australian aboriginal-style totem poles mark the start of the Australian Outback. One side of the pathway has three aviaries under a grove of Eucalyptus trees. Each aviary has a large central pole topped with large rings that support the netting. I found it difficult to see the birds through the netting -particularly the small estrildid finches. The other side of the path has four open-topped exhibits for Tasmanian devils and wombats. They are well-planted with Australian plants and have low glass fronts and back barriers disguised as earth-banks or rockwork. A wall between the last two exhibits is decorated with rockwork and has cavities with sculptures of marsupials. The open-topped exhibits are attractive, but I failed to see any marsupials there.

    The Australian exhibits continue across the road, although the two sections are poorly connected. Around a Queenslander house there are 11 exhibits for koalas and an aviary with palm cockatoo (it may have also had Australian rainbow lorikeets). The exhibits are viewed from an elevated walkway that provides eye-level views of the koalas among the branches and their shade structures. There are so many similar exhibits for koalas that I wound up quickly passing by all the exhibits in the vain pursuit of seeing an active koala. Urban Jungle was the last area on my list of things to see before stopping to rest.

    Urban Jungle is on top of a small mesa and houses animal ambassadors and other animals that can be encountered closely if you purchase behind-the-scenes tours. The pathway loop around the mesa also serves as a road for buses. Animal exhibits include: giraffe with gazelles; Indian rhinoceros; flamingos; red river hogs; red kangaroos; a rotational exhibit for hand-raised carnivores and their domestic dog companions; and some cages for binturongs, hornbills and others. All the exhibits are barren and narrow. With all the service traffic here and encounter areas inaccessible to regular ticket holders, Urban Jungle feels unwelcoming. I was eager to escape and take a break.

    I do not normally discuss washroom facilities in my reviews, but I will make an exception here. In the washrooms by Sydney’s Grill the toilet bowls were old, and the finish had been worn away considerably. A big group of children arrived while I was in a stall. The washroom was small, so they jostled around and tried to slam open doors to find toilets to use. I had assumed beforehand that San Diego Zoo had great visitor services, so I was very frustrated by my experience at the washroom there.

    After eating at Sydney’s Grill and recuperating I was ready to see the rest of the San Diego Zoo. There was still a lot of exhibits remaining!

    Urban Jungle is the worst exhibit complex at the Zoo, but the exhibits along Center Street are also poor. The worst are four small cages for primates. Two of them bafflingly hold aye-aye. Aye-aye are very sensitive to light and probably spend the whole day hidden within their shelters. DeBrazza guenon and kikuyu colobus were in the other two small cages. The other exhibits in the area include grottos for otters, grizzly bears, Andean bears, and sun bears. All the grottoes are small for the bears even if they rotate through them.

    Sun bears have better exhibits at the nearby Sun Bear Forest. I saw a sun bear move between a large grotto there and a smaller one. Both grottoes were heavily furnished with logs to climb. Unfortunately, the sun bears were quite destructive to the exhibit when it originally opened, and they have never replanted it. There is a strong contrast between the lushly planted slopes around the exhibit and the sand and concrete in the grotto. A partially enclosed exhibit where I saw Francois langurs also looked barren compared to the lush vegetation outside the exhibit. There was also a bird aviary. Easily the best exhibit was a netted enclosure for red-cheeked gibbons. There was lots of vegetation both within and outside the exhibit. Through viewing windows within an Asian themed shelter, I watched the gibbons brachiate. Past the gibbon exhibit, I entered Africa Rocks.

    Africa Rocks is the biggest construction project developed so far at the San Diego Zoo. The ambitious project cost $68 million and simulates six distinct African habitats: Cape Fynbos; West African forest; Madagascar Forest; Acacia Woodland; Ethiopian Highlands; and the Kopje. Unlike other large African exhibits at zoos, Africa Rocks doesn’t have the large mammals typically associated with Africa but highlights smaller species that have no shortage of charisma. Each habitat zone for the complex has a headliner rock star species native to that environment. Those stars are supported by other species of fauna and flora typical of that habitat. I believe that each habitat was also supposed to have unique and characteristic rockwork.

    I am very supportive of the concepts underpinning Africa Rocks. San Diego Zoo has the expansive Safari Park facility for large mammals that have significant space requirements. It’s great to see the smaller city facility concentrate more on developing complex exhibits for other animals. Most of my favorite zoo exhibits are immersive and geographically themed. San Diego has a great climate for supporting diverse vegetation, so they can create a much more specific and realistic African landscape than zoos in colder climates. I was excited to see Africa Rocks!

    The Cape Fynbos was the first habitat to open and the first on my tour. It represents the fynbos ecoregion which has 80% of the biodiversity within the Cape Floristic Region- a global biodiversity hotspot. Fynbos is a type of heathland vegetation dominated by sclerophyllous plants- many of which have beautiful flowers. The fynbos is enamored by people who appreciate plants. I have been hoping for years that a zoo would develop an exhibit dedicated to this ecosystem! The headliner for this area at the Zoo are African penguins.

    In a simple, dark concrete viewing shelter there are windows stretching 70 feet across with dramatic underwater views of the 200,000-gallon penguin pool. It’s not just for watching penguins; the penguins share the pool with leopard sharks and fish! Gunite rock formations are spread around the pool and artificial kelp sways in the currents. Visitors can watch the underwater scenes from an upper level with benches or close-up in a lower level next to the windows. I watched the sharks for awhile but left to find the penguins.

    Outside, I was drawn to the fynbos vegetation. During my visit in April many of the plants were flowering in vibrant colors. The plantings are still quite new, but in the future this area will be absolutely stunning in the spring!

    Further down the path I found the penguins on a cobblestone beach and watched them behind short glass walls. Tall outcrops of rounded gunite rocks that mimic granite formations on the Cape coast rise from the beach and pool. Africa Rocks is in a canyon so the land rises behind the penguin exhibit to the mesa above.

    As I was admiring the scenery I noticed several penguins headed for the water. They dived into the water and I followed them from land before racing back to the underwater viewing shelter. Everyone in the shelter was excited and pointing at the penguins. The pool is quite long, so the penguins had gathered some speed and looked like they were flying underwater. Soon they were out of sight again. It didn’t last too long, but watching the penguins was still easily one of the best animal experiences I had at the San Diego Zoo!

    The viewing wasn’t as good at the West African Rainforest crocodile exhibit. The West African dwarf crocodiles were quite active, but I struggled to see them and the turtles through the strong glare on the exhibit. There is a metal frame above the window and I’m surprised they haven’t installed a cover to the frame to shade the area in front of the window and reduce glare. The early concept for this exhibit had a more open design that would have connected the area better with Rady Falls but wouldn’t have had underwater viewing.

    Rady Falls is a six and a half story waterfall that crashes down an artificial rock formation. Visitors can walk behind the lowest fall in a cave at the bottom of the formation. The formation looks like it has horizontal rock strata with some layers more resistant to erosion that create steps. The waterfall would have looked much more natural if the land sloped up away from the waterfall on both sides, instead of sloping down on the side towards Cape Fynbos. The rockwork here is very similar to that in the adjacent Madagascar Forest exhibits.

    Madagascar Forest has four animal exhibits and represents both dense rainforest and dry spiny forest. Large poles with load-distribution rings support a tensile canopy structure of steel mesh that supports the mesh for the exhibits. This system reduces the need for support elements in the animal exhibits. The mesh enclosures also have a more curved organic form. Outside of the animal areas the polished metal support poles are very noticeable though and detract from the attempts at naturalism. A paint coat and strategically placed vegetation would have helped blend them into the landscape better.

    In the first lemur habitat I saw ring tailed lemurs, blue-eyed black lemurs, and the headliners- Coquerel’s sifakas. I’ve never seen sifakas before, so it was really exciting to watch the iconic lemurs leap around on their hindlegs with an upright posture. They have bright yellow eyes, black faces with a white bridge over the nose, and beautiful white and maroon fur on their bodies. The next lemur enclosure held red-ruffed lemurs and red-collared lemurs. On the opposite side of the canyon I watched young fossa play. Fossa are predators of lemurs and have a unique appearance that’s like a mix between a cat and mongoose. Lemurs and fossa are great display animals. Interesting reptile species from Madagascar, especially chameleon, would have been great additions to Madagascar Forest.

    All the animals in Madagascar Forest are seen behind mesh. A walk-through exhibit would have been a great addition to display the lemur species that are less sensitive.

    On the Zoo’s webpage for Madagascar Forest, Tsingy limestone pinnacle formations are mentioned, but the actual rockwork in the exhibits looks quite different from karst terrain. Tsingy was formed from the dissolution of limestone rocks from mildy acidic rainwater. Dissolution occurs both at the surface and underground and both vertically and horizontally. It produces tall narrow pinnacles with edges that can be sharp like a knife. Tsingy rocks have a quite uniform almost metallic grey color because the limestone was formed originally by continuous deposition. The rock formations at Madagascar Forest have alternating bands of color and cuts which suggests multiple strata and discontinuous deposition. The formations look much more rounded than Tsingy peaks. These differences suggest that the exhibit used some other kind of inspiration than the iconic karst formations in Madagascar’s Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.

    In places the rockwork at Madagascar Forest decreases visibility of the animals, particularly the fossa. I watched some young fossa play in their exhibit, but when they climbed up the abundant rockwork in their enclosure they were out of sight. The rockwork is angled into the face of the rock formation so the ledges slope down and create pockets that cannot be seen from below where the visitor pathway is located.

    Africa Rocks is situated in a natural canyon between mesas, so the use of rockwork on the sides of the canyons is more appropriate and looks more natural than the rockwork in many zoos that is isolated from topographic context. In Africa Rocks they also have sections of rockwork down the slope, so it looks less monolithic.

    Large trees in Madagascar Forest and elsewhere in Africa Rocks help soften the rockwork and reinforce the theming in each habitat. Plants are very important for animals too because they provide structural complexity, shelter, browse, and they provide variety by naturally growing and changing with time. I was pleased to see some large trees within the fossa and lemur habitats and I watched the lemurs leap through the branches and forage lightly on the leaves. Mature trees can take a long time to settle in when transplanted. Most of the trees in Madagascar Forest seemed to be doing well, but in Acacia Woodlands and Ethiopian Highlands many of the large trees were struggling with transplant shock and destruction from the animals. I would have liked to have seen more fast-growing herbs, shrubs, and smaller trees in and around the exhibits.

    Acacia trees are an important part of the next habitat- Acacia Woodlands. Together with other tree species the Acacia form a discontinuous canopy with large open gaps usually covered in grass. Like Madagascar Woodland, all the exhibits in Acacia Woodlands are meshed enclosures supported by the same tensile system.

    One of those enclosures is a large walk-through aviary with two pathways on two levels. The most interesting feature in the aviary is a tall simulated earth-bank on the canyon wall with holes for bee and bird nests. When bee-eater birds are introduced into the aviary visitors will be able to watch them hunt and de-sting the insects. A diversity of other small birds already inhabit the aviary and I also saw a white-bellied go-away-bird. There was a lot of avian activity in the aviary and the addition of bee-eaters will make this another great aviary at the San Diego Zoo!

    Across from the aviary there was also a lot of activity in the vervet monkey enclosure. Vervet monkeys are a very intelligent and active monkey. Unfortunately, part of their exhibit is a considerable distance from the visitor walkway, far more than is necessary for safety. I took a few photos from the pathway, but I can’t see the monkeys even when I enlarge the photographs.

    Surprisingly, visitors can get a bit closer to the leopard exhibit than most of the vervet monkey enclosure. The leopards are the headliners for Acacia Woodlands. Leopards are found in both Africa (including Acacia woodlands) and Asia. Africa Rocks displays the Amur subspecies of leopard, which are native to temperate forests in Northern Asia, but they are a Critically Endangered subspecies and part of an SSP program, so this was a judicious substitution. The two leopard exhibits are nicely connected by a transfer in the rockwork. Leopards like cover, so this partially enclosed transfer is probably more comfortable for them than more exposed mesh connections. A large foreground tree is leaning over so the lines of the trunk harmonize with the angles of the transfer behind.

    Similar lines are visible in the next animal viewing area in Ethiopian Highlands. This section represents the arid mountains and grassy plateaus of Ethiopia. Instead of meshed enclosures the three animal exhibits here are open topped, and each of them has viewing windows and viewing from open elevated areas overlooking the exhibits. The layout of each exhibit is also similar with artificial rock walls encircling the exhibit and raised central areas with steep rockwork sides.

    One of these exhibits holds gelada and Nubian ibex and the other two holds two troops of the headliners-hamadryas baboons. I was more interested in the gelada though. Gelada are the only primate that’s primarily graminivorous. They’re like the primate equivalent of the antelope found elsewhere in Africa! Bare red skin patches on their chests have inspired their nickname of bleeding-heart monkeys. They live in complex societies and use a variety of facial expressions to communicate.

    Most of the gelada and hamadryas baboons were busy foraging on the vegetation in their habitats. Not even the sword-leaved yucca plants were safe. The scattered trees, palms, and yucca help soften the exhibit and provide enrichment. I doubt the new plantings will withstand the assaults from the primates. If they were protected more from the beginning than they would have had a chance to establish. Once the plants were established and less vulnerable then the primates could have had more access to them. It would be a shame if the exhibit becomes denuded of vegetation like the sun bear exhibit at the Zoo.

    Ethiopian Highlands is immersive, but there are some details that detract from the experience. There are bare concrete bases under the windows that could have been disguised with some rockwork. The metal frame that supports the windows is heavy handed and distracting. It doesn’t provide any shade to prevent glare. Some sections of walls visible in the exhibit haven’t been disguised by rockwork. If they were themed it would improve consistency, so that the immersive experience isn’t interrupted. The Ethiopian Highlands was the final habitat developed for Africa Rocks, but it is not the last habitat in the complex.

    The Kopje opened in 1986 and inspired the later developments of Africa Rocks. It was the first bioclimatic zone exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. Kopjes are granitic outcrops exposed after softer rocks have eroded away. They punctuate African savannas and provide shelter and protection for plants and animals.

    The rockwork in the Kopje has a rounded form inspired by natural outcrops. The formations are scattered throughout the complex and pass through animal exhibits unconstrained by the need to act as containment barriers. Vegetation grows among the rockwork and shows the connections between landforms and flora. This area is easily one of the most thoughtfully executed at the San Diego Zoo.

    One of the most inspirational exhibits is a mixed species exhibit for klipspringer, rock hyrax, and dwarf mongoose. The three species all look quite different but depend on kopjes for shelter and protection. Visitors can lean over a short glass railing for an open view into the exhibit with rising kopjes and the blue sky beyond. Other great exhibits include a large aviary that held Bateleur eagles on my visit and a smaller aviary for weavers and other small birds. In both exhibits the landscape flows in and out of the exhibits and form richly detailed and balanced compositions. Meerkats are the new headliners of the Kopje, but they are not part of the original Kopje designs. They inhabit a renovated Horn and Hoof Mesa yard with some added details like termite mounds, plantings, and kopje rockwork.

    By the time I left the Kopje I had spent almost an hour and a half at Africa Rocks and had rushed a little through most of the complex. I missed the new gardens by the Kopje completely and would have probably enjoyed them.

    Africa Rocks didn’t need the big animals typically associated with Africa and African themed zoo exhibits. The smaller animals, plants, and landscape were compelling enough.

    Africa Rocks is an impressive complex and experience, but it can still be improved upon. The giant pole support structures for the tensile mesh structure should have been better integrated into the landscape. The viewing for some of the animals, like the vervet monkeys, could be closer. Glare on viewing windows needs to be better addressed. Some of the plants need to be more protected until they become established. The rockwork overall isn’t as well detailed and designed as what I saw in much of the Oregon Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo and it was an important design element in Africa Rocks.

    Even with these criticisms, Africa Rocks is one of my favorite zoo exhibit complexes and I was glad that it was fully open for my first visit to the San Diego Zoo since I was a child. It makes me hopeful for the San Diego Zoo’s future.

    I was not nearly as excited to see the next area, Elephant Odyssey, as I was to see Africa Rocks. Elephant Odyssey has a novel theme of exploring California’s past through related living animals. Years before my visit I had seen many pictures of Elephant Odyssey and was almost shocked with what I saw; I had expected better from the San Diego Zoo. At least I came prepared with low expectations.

    Elephant Odyssey is juggling a lot. It sits on a narrow site at the top of a mesa. It is a renovation of Horn and Hoof Mesa, which was a strip of ungulate exhibits along the mesa. One of the goals of Elephant Odyssey was probably to create a more dynamic viewing experience than the former collection of similar ungulate exhibits viewed from the same angles. A tour bus road runs behind the exhibit. They wanted to have views into the animal exhibits from both that route and a separate pedestrian route. Many of the large animals at the San Diego Zoo, especially the elephants, needed new, better exhibits. They wanted to showcase husbandry and animal care to the public. There are gunite rock formations and other features throughout Elephant Odyssey that suggest that another goal was to create a natural habitat. A garden of Madagascar plants was of botanical significance and preserved. They also wanted to generate income with a food outlet and gift shop. In places they needed to hide service areas. For messaging they wanted to explain California’s past and the modern conservation challenges facing large animals. Those are a lot of goals and challenges to address.

    They took on way too much on a limited site and it shows.

    After Elephant Odyssey, I longed to see a better simpler exhibit, so I crossed Bashor Bridge to the Lost Forest. Bashor Bridge connects to Albert’s fine dining restaurant and Treetops Café. Both eateries extend out from the mesa into the canyon. Tall palms and trees grow between the buildings. The buildings are stylized after colonial African architecture and probably have great views of the canyon below. From there, I headed to Owens Aviary.

    Like Scripps Aviary, Owens Aviary is built into the side of a mesa. It was built in 1937 but has been renovated twice. It also has two visitor pathways through the exhibit, one of which winds through the treetops. The Aviary houses dozens of species of tropical Asian birds among lush vegetation. Fish can be watched from low underwater windows under a waterfall. Owens Aviary is another great bird exhibit at San Diego Zoo.

    From the canyon below Owens Aviary I went to Panda Trek. To get to the mega-charismatic giant panda visitors pass exhibits for red pandas, takins, and Mangshan pit vipers. The rockwork in the takin exhibit is very blocky and crude. Red pandas are one of my favorite animal species, but their exhibit here was forgettable. Mangshan pit vipers have become endangered from overcollection for the pet trade. They’re large vipers with intricate skin patterns for camouflage in their mountainous forest habitats. There was some glare on the windows, but I was still able to get a decent photo of one of the snakes resting on cycad fronds. I also got some photos of the giant pandas as they were crunching bamboo shoots. It’s easy to get a great view of the giant pandas from over a glass railing and low dry moat. The panda exhibits are quite small, but they are nicely shaded by low crowned trees and have complex climbing structures. To keep guests moving the pathway travels pass the panda habitats before doubling back on a higher level. Giant pandas are a huge draw, and the other animals nearby are also charismatic, so its surprising that the Zoo didn’t invest more in the exhibits here.

    Panda Trek also includes four rotational exhibits for Amur leopards and snow leopards. All the exhibits have rockwork or logs for climbing. None of the individual exhibits are very large, but they’re connected with mesh transfers that pass over the visitor pathway.

    Eagle Canyon was closed for construction, so I passed a couple of open-topped pond exhibits for wading birds and waterfowl on my way up to the remains of Horn and Hoof Mesa. The ungulate exhibits are strung along the mesa and have great burrowed views of the scenery beyond. I saw bontebok, gazelles, and zebra, but the highlight was a gerenuk standing on its hindlegs to nibble browse. These exhibits aren’t the worst at the Zoo, but I suspect they will be renovated soon to better fit into the zoogeographic theme of Northern Frontier.

    Polar Bear Plunge is the largest development in Northern Frontier. I was excited to see polar bears but dismayed to see a polar bear moving in repetitive patterns. The giant bear was swaying its head repetitively too. Pacing isn’t always indicative of poor welfare, but this behavior was so stereotypical that I doubt the bear is sufficiently stimulated. Most of the exhibit floor is covered in concrete and the terrain isn’t varied significantly. Natural substrates and varied terrain are two of the most important features in new polar bear exhibits. Polar Bear Plunge opened in 1996, but it is already becoming outdated. A more recent renovation added interpretive elements. Children can pop up from under a simulated ice sheet to mimic seal behavior. Nearby there are two cages for racoons and arctic fox. Reindeer are found in a barren small hillside exhibit. At least the plantings between the exhibits are nice. Swaths of ferns grow under towering coniferous trees. The best exhibit in this area is the Arctic Aviary. The pool has low windows for underwatering viewing and I really enjoyed watching the ducks dive and splash around.

    I concluded my trip through the Northern Frontier with the maned wolf and cougar exhibits. The tall mountain lion exhibit has felled logs for climbing and crude rockwork formations.

    I used Bashor Bridge again and crossed through the Lost Forest on Treetops Way to get to Discovery Outpost. The walkthrough hummingbird aviary feels a little hidden, but it’s worth seeking out. Hummingbirds and small birds hover and dart by hanging Spanish moss and other epiphytic plants. The Reptile House has a great collection, but the building has open sides and the glare on the exhibit windows is quite bad. I walked through quickly but stopped to take a photo of a stunning Fiji banded iguana. I felt lucky to see such a rare Endangered species. A newer building has turtles, and another has native California species and amphibians. Kaiser’s spotted newts were one of the most notable species. Past these buildings there’s a beautiful beach exhibit for gharials and turtles-one of my favorite exhibits at the Zoo. There are several other outdoor exhibits for reptiles on the mesa including large yards for giant Galapagos tortoise. I didn’t go to the Children’s Zoo that’s also part of the Discovery Outpost area. The Zoo was closing as I left Discovery Outpost.

    By the end of my visit I felt exhausted. I spent over eight hours at the Zoo and rushed through many exhibits. There are significantly more animal exhibits at the San Diego Zoo than any other zoo I’ve ever been to. The Lost Forest alone has more animal exhibits than most zoos.

    The San Diego Zoo has an almost complete collection of charismatic megafauna. They display: gorillas; orangutans; bonobos (pygmy chimps); giant pandas; polar bears; grizzly bears; a wolf animal ambassador; lions; tigers; Asian elephants; African elephants; Indian rhinoceros; river hippopotamus; giraffe; zebra; koalas; penguins; komodo dragons; crocodiles; and sharks. The only animals they’re really missing are marine mammals, and those can be found at SeaWorld in San Diego.

    They may have a complete collection of charismatic megafauna, but many of those species are kept in some of the least appealing and poorest exhibits at the Zoo, especially the grizzly bear, lions (in Elephant Odyssey), and giraffe. Lions and giraffe are both exhibited in far superior exhibits at the nearby San Diego Safari Park.

    Of all the charismatic megafauna at the San Diego Zoo, the gorillas, tigers, penguins/leopard sharks, and crocodiles have the best exhibits. The gorilla exhibit is scenic, but it’s not inspiring like the gorilla exhibits I’ve seen at the Woodland Park Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I got a sense of awe watching the gorillas at both of those other zoos. Tiger River was great but the removal of the screening at the back of the exhibit has decreased the quality of views and may cause the tigers additional stress. I really enjoyed the African penguin/leopard shark exhibit in Africa Rocks at the San Diego Zoo. In the past week I had also seen exceptional penguin exhibits at both the Woodland Park Zoo and Calgary Zoo. The gharial exhibit behind the reptile houses at the San Diego Zoo was a well-designed exhibit with amazing animals, but it had no underwater viewing.

    San Diego Zoo also has some exceptional exhibits for other less charismatic species, especially aviaries for birds. Owens Aviary, Scripps Aviary, Parker Aviary, the hummingbird aviary, the Acacia Woodlands aviary, and the Arctic Aviary are all great walk-through bird exhibits at the San Diego Zoo. I found the Lory Loft aviary at Jurong Bird Park to be more impressive than anything at the San Diego Zoo. At Lory Loft you can feed the birds nectar too! The Waterfall Aviary at the Jurong Bird Park though is by far the best aviary I’ve ever visited. The aviary netting and supports are so unobtrusive you forget that you’re in an aviary. The aviary gets its name from what Wildlife Reserves Singapore advertises as the tallest man-made waterfall. It is a shame that the aviary will be destroyed when they move facilities in a couple of years. Hopefully, the new Bird Park will have aviaries that are just as impressive.

    San Diego Zoo has some great exhibits, but so do a lot of zoos now. The Edmonton Valley Zoo isn’t AZA accredited and isn’t an elite zoo, but it still has a great Artic Shores exhibit featuring pinnipeds. If that exhibit was at the San Diego Zoo it would be one of the best mammal exhibits there and it would be very popular.

    The San Diego Zoo site has incredible potential for creating exceptional exhibits. The warm Mediterranean climate in San Diego is almost perfect for a zoo. The San Diego Zoo displays a range of temperate and tropical species outside almost year-round. Outdoor exhibits are on average much more appealing than indoor exhibits and less expensive to construct. An amazing variety of plants can be grown outdoors in San Diego, and the Zoo has a collection that would easily rival most botanical gardens. The climate is great for people too. In addition to the favorable climate, the San Diego Zoo is sited on outstandingly varied natural terrain. The natural mesas and canyons provide amazing design opportunities that they have only partially tapped into.

    The site and climate are probably significant contributors to the popularity of the San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park, where the San Diego Zoo is sited, is spectacular and just driving through it enhances the overall experience of visiting the Zoo. Within the Zoo there are great views from the mesas across Balboa Park. The canyons feel more sheltered and secure. The varied terrain enhances the overall experience. It was warm and sunny on my visit; not too humid and not too dry. I felt invigorated after spending the last few days in the rainy Pacific Northwest and experiencing cold snow conditions in Calgary before that.

    Guest services are another important contributor to overall experiences. San Diego Zoo has 18 dining outlets and 11 gift shops. To help guests get around the site there’s a Skyfari gondola, a Kangaroo bus, escalators and elevators. Most of the pathways are wide and accessible. There are a lot of options for guests to get around the Zoo and there are services located conveniently throughout the Zoo.

    There are a lot of animal exhibits throughout the San Diego Zoo, so visitors never have to travel too far between exhibits.

    Visiting the San Diego Zoo is like watching Avengers: Infinity War. Both have a cornucopia of charismatic stars and secondary characters. There’s never a dull moment. There’s a lot of eye candy and the plot or exhibits move by so quickly and relentlessly that sometimes you don’t have time to stop and notice the flaws. Neither the CGI in Avengers: Infinity War nor the rockwork at San Diego Zoo is impressive for the massive budgets. Both Avengers: Infinity War and the San Diego Zoo are incredibly popular. If you are looking for something transcendent look elsewhere. Claiming the San Diego Zoo is the world's best zoo is like calling Avengers: Infinity War the best movie of the year. They’re both enjoyable though.
    Pleistocene891, jayjds2, AWP and 6 others like this.
  4. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member 15+ year member Premium Member

    28 May 2009
    Newport Beach, CA, USA
    I would love to hear more about your observations on this area, you have included a great overview of some issues. You probably have read the old threads on the subject, were there any exhibits or aspects of exhibits you enjoyed in Elephant Odyssey?
  5. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Wasn't my 15 page post (without photos) enough Geomorph :p ! It's almost like a play by play of Avengers: Infinity War. Then Spider-man shot a web at Thanos's face, temporarily blinding him. Meanwhile Iron Man...
    Writing about Elephant Odyssey gave me a bit of a headache. It would take me pages of writing to analyze all the exhibits there with respect to the goals of the complex.

    Elephant Odyssey does have some successes and moments that I found enjoyable.
    It's probably a more varied viewing experience than the old Horn and Hoof Mesa yards.
    The large bones in the California condor exhibit made me think about the ripple effects to other animals, like scavengers, of the megafauna extinctions in California.
    It was surprising to see a large dromedary camel laying down peacefully next to a much more diminutive pronghorn and it was a cool reminder that camels and pronghorn both originated in North America!
    I liked the panels with side by side drawings comparing modern California's fauna with California's fauna in the Pleistocene. A lot off information can be conveyed quickly in images!
    I took a picture of some unique spiny Madagascar plants.

    So what would have made Elephant Odyssey better? Well, they could have kept the elephants in the area that's now Urban Jungle, enlarged their exhibit and concentrated on showcasing animal husbandry there. That would have been a great combination with behind-the-scenes tours. At the Elephant Odyssey site they could have concentrated more on showcasing California's Pleistocene fauna in natural exhibits lusher than current California environments. That would showcase how both California's climate and fauna assemblages have changed over time. With more space in the Elephant Odyssey site they could have created a large mixed species ungulate exhibit for pronghorn, camels, tapir, capybara etc. A California condor aviary and reptile exhibits would add variety. I would have kept the statues, but made them more realistic and integrated them into the landscape. For example, a mammoth statue could be partially hidden in the trees behind the mixed-species ungulate exhibit.The significant Madagascar plantings could have been isolated on separate, more intimate pathways.
    Hmm... this is getting fun...
    StoppableSan likes this.
  6. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Part 8 – Ocean’s Edge

    When I left the San Diego Zoo I was exhausted. Physically, mentally, I was much more tired than I had anticipated. My original plan was to use public transportation to get back to the hotel, but I would have had to go to a bank first to get some cash. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a bank (I couldn’t just use an ATM), so I used a taxi instead.

    Back at my hotel, I scrolled through my photos from the San Diego Zoo. Oregon Zoo has a fraction of the animals that San Diego Zoo displays. I wound up with more animal photos from my visit to the Oregon Zoo than from San Diego though! I am not fully competent with my digital camera, so I really struggled to get decent photos through the mesh that encloses a lot of the animal exhibits at the San Diego Zoo. There was so much to see at San Diego too that I didn’t have as much time to stop and watch the animals. Looking through my photos, it seemed like I had more memorable experiences with more types of animals at the Oregon Zoo than the San Diego Zoo!

    As I reflected on my recent visits to zoos I realized that I had a better experience overall at the Oregon Zoo than the San Diego Zoo! This is not to say that the Oregon Zoo is better. I subjectively had a better visit to the Oregon Zoo. If I could pick a zoo to re-visit or live nearby though I would easily pick the San Diego Zoo over the Oregon Zoo. I would also recommend the San Diego Zoo over the Oregon Zoo to most zoo fans. Oregon Zoo has better quality, but San Diego Zoo has so many animals and plants in a great setting and location.

    When Pie, the co-owner of the El Primero Hotel where I was staying, asked about my visit to the San Diego Zoo I told him that I enjoyed the Zoo, but there’s a lot that they could improve on. Both the Oregon Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo have better, more consistent animal exhibits than San Diego. It was frustrating to see giraffes and some other animals in small barren exhibits at the San Diego Zoo when they are or could be housed so much better at the nearby expansive San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Thankfully, Africa Rocks, the newest exhibit at the Zoo, reflects a new commitment to focusing more on smaller animals at the Zoo that require less space. There is so much to see at the San Diego Zoo that some of it can be overlooked. They have several aviaries with blue-crowned laughing thrush. In 2016 the wild population of this species was estimated at just 323 individuals. People who visit the Zoo should feel lucky to see such a beautiful and rare species, but I doubt that most people see more than another little bird, and the Zoo does little to challenge this. I think that the Oregon Zoo does a much better job with educational interpretive material than San Diego. San Diego Zoo is an appealing place to visit, but I think that other zoos are better showcases of good design, animal welfare, and informal education.

    Later that evening I took a break from visiting and talking about zoos to explore downtown Chula Vista. There were lots of charming small restaurants and bars; it would be a great place to eat and socialize. I had blown my budget on taxi rides that day, so I couldn’t indulge anything other than my imagination.

    My stomach and taste buds were rewarded for their patience the next morning when I feasted on complimentary breakfast. I chatted again with Pie and Sol (they own and run the hotel). They’re both so warm and approachable and made me feel welcomed and comfortable at the hotel. I was traveling alone, so I really appreciated the chance to socialize with them and feel less isolated. Chula Vista is far from San Diego, but I think I made a great decision to stay at the El Primero Hotel.

    I was determined to use public transportation as much as possible that day. I got on a bus to downtown San Diego from the Hotel, transferred to a train in downtown San Diego, then transferred into another bus to La Jolla. It took over two hours to get to my destination of La Jolla Cove.

    It was worth it! Several California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) were lounging on the rocky cliff ledges at La Jolla Cove. Occasionally a sea lion would slip into the water and swim in the cove!

    The California sea lions were the most notable animals there, but the Brandt’s cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) and other birds were also captivating. Brandt’s cormorants have brilliant blue throats during the breeding season that match their eyes. From behind the clifftop fence I was just feet away from cormorant nests. The young were well developed, so the parents were making frequent foraging trips to keep them satiated. The nests were spaced closely together causing a lot of defensive posturing and other behaviors from the birds. Further along the coast, the cliffs were dotted with nests of California brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis).

    The coastline at La Jolla Cove is magnificent. Bands of color like sinuous strokes of paint flow from the beach as the light sandy colors give way to the deep dark blue waters outside the cove. The structural sandstone cliffs are fronted by stretches of sand that shift and flow into the fluid ocean. As the waves advance and retreat the scene changes in composition.

    I spent over two hours engrossed in the splendor of the natural landscape and animals at La Jolla Cove before wandering further along the coastline. I paid a fee to descend an excavated tunnel to the Sunny Jim Sea Cave. The mouth of the cave beautifully framed the ocean waters and gave a sense of security and attachment when looking out to the ocean.

    TZDugong, snowleopard and jayjds2 like this.
  7. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Part 9 – Californian Safari

    Some zoological facilities are easy to reach using public transportation. San Diego Zoo Safari Park is not one of them.

    My bus got stuck in traffic on Freeway Five and inched along like a walrus hauling its massive body up the shore. I could see the downtown core out the window and thought about jumping out and jogging the rest of the way. The bus ride ended up taking more than an hour. The Greyhound trip from San Diego to Escondido wound up taking less time than the city bus trip from La Jolla to downtown San Diego!

    Traveling around Escondido wasn’t easy either. I took a bus down Escondido Boulevard and tried to walk the rest of the way to my accommodation. I’m not sure if I was given the wrong directions or misheard them, but I wound up going the wrong way. I doubled back to where I started and stopped for dinner. My phone had run out of charge earlier that day, so I got directions from people and headed out on foot again. It was dark outside and there were no sidewalks in places, so I walked in the bike lane-dragging my suitcase behind me. I finally gave up and asked a host at a restaurant to call a taxi for me.

    I don’t think I completely understood the differences between a motel and hotel when I had booked my stay at the Mediteran Motel from Canada. Motels are designed as accommodations for motorists and not designed to be easily accessible by public transportation. It was the closest accommodation to the San Diego Safari Park though and cost just $50 USD. The unit exceeded my expectations and was impeccably clean.

    It would have been very helpful to have the Uber or Lyft app installed on my phone for my trip. I highly recommend it to anyone trying to travel through the US without a personal vehicle. Unfortunately, I only have an older i-phone and it doesn’t support the operating system I would need to download and use those services.

    There are no buses to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in the morning, but the motel owner was kind enough to book an Uber trip for me, which I paid her cash for. The Uber driver was friendly, and it cost me just a few dollars to get to the Safari Park. On the way a roadrunner zipped across the road!

    San Diego Zoo Safari Park

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park) is a natural environment zoo with conservation facilities. A purely conservation facility was deemed unviable. The zoological attractions help support the conservation activities.

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is beautifully sited in the San Pasqual Valley just outside the city of Escondido. Semi-arid mountains rise around the Safari Park. There is a sense of vastness, but also enclosure. Over half of the 1,800-acre (730 ha) site is protected native species habitat, but there is still lots of space dedicated to off-display conservation facilities and vast field animal exhibits.

    The sprawling San Diego Zoo Safari Park site has great space and privacy for off-display breeding and holding facilities. The most famous of these is the condor-minium where California condors have been housed and successfully bred. This facility has played a crucial role in the recovery and reintroduction of this iconic bird. Other off-display breeding centers at the Safari Park include: the 8-acre Cheetah Research and Breeding Center; the Pocket Mouse Conservation Breeding Facility; the Griffen Reptile Conservation Center for Grand Cayman blue iguana, Jamaican iguana, and Anegada iguana; and the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, which has one on-display enclosure. There are numerous other facilities for holding and breeding. An important quarantine center is on site too.

    The vast on-display field exhibits at the Safari Park are also used for holding and breeding animals, especially ungulates. This capacity helps support population management of animals for the San Diego Zoo and other American zoos.

    Conservation research also takes place at the Safari Park. The Beckman Center for Conservation Research is in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It’s the base of operations and administration for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. It’s also the home of the Frozen Zoo. This depository preserves living cell cultures of nearly 1,000 taxa, making it the largest and most diverse of its kind. Advances in technology and scientific understanding are making the Frozen Zoo an invaluable resource for research and conservation.

    Like the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park can keep their animals outside almost year-round. It’s also a very appealing climate for many people.

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is close to the San Diego Zoo and has a warm Mediterranean climate. The temperatures at the San Diego Zoo are a little more moderate. The average July highs in Escondido are 88 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 79 degrees in San Diego. It can get a little bit colder in the mountains by Escondido (average January low of 42 degrees Fahrenheit) than the coast in San Diego (average January low of 45 degrees Fahrenheit). Overall, the climate is a little more comfortable for most people at the San Diego Zoo area than around the Safari Park.

    I enjoy the heat, and was sick of the cold weather in Canada, so the warm day at the Safari Park felt like an ideal temperature.

    I overheard a lot of visitors say that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is basically a large zoo with a tram ride through expansive field exhibits. The conservation facilities are off-display, so that’s a fair description of the general admission experience. The name of the facility reflects that it has both walkable zoo and a safari park experiences.

    For guests, the hub of the Safari Park is Safari Base Camp and Nairobi Village. These areas represent a center from which travelers make trips into the wilderness to find wild animals. From this hub trails lead to animal exhibits and other experiences. Buildings and theming in Safari Base Camp and Nairobi Village were inspired by rural Africa. Many of the buildings have pyramid or cone shaped thatch roofs. The buildings and streets are set in a much more organic and less strict layout than the typical urban grid. Trees and other plantings soften the architecture. Several nearby small animal exhibits enliven the area. It’s designed to feel like a busy liveable area set in nature. The theming is very well-detailed in this area and really contributes to creating a strong sense of place.

    At the Animal Ambassador Stage, a little southern three-banded armadillo scurried around while an informal educational program was given. It was a great way to educate children because it was evident that they were very engaged with this more interactive experience.

    The most notable animal exhibit in the Safari Base Camp is the Wings of the World aviary. Most walkthrough aviaries at zoos are a potpourri of birds and plants from different regions. This aviary is even more of a mix and has birds from different continents. It’s designed to get people excited about birds, so it has a lot of charismatic species. The most notable resident to me were Storm’s stork. I saw one of these endangered birds along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysia! My wild encounter was from a distance, so the closer view at the Safari Park gave me a fuller picture of the bird I saw in Malaysia. Other notable birds in the aviary included Victoria crowned pigeons, Madagascan ibis, and southern bald ibis. In addition to the eclectic birds, there is a variety of habitats in the aviary. The Wings of the World aviary has a great selection of charismatic birds, but it feels less focused and less settled into the landscape compared to the Scripps Aviary and Owens Aviary at the San Diego Zoo.

    Outside the aviary, I watched wading flamingos and waterfowl. Behind the birds, there’s a simulated fishing village elevated by wooden stilts. Water crashes under the platforms of the structure and through conical fishing traps into a large picturesque lagoon. Rare shoebill storks, named for their broad bills, stand almost motionless at the edge of an island that emerges from the lagoon. Shoebill storks use a sit-and-wait predatory technique. Other bird species in the lagoon, including wild visitors, are much more active.

    From the lagoon I took a trail past aviaries of bee-eater birds to Gorilla Forest. The long gorilla exhibit is hemmed by a dry moat in the front and a tall back barrier somewhat themed like rock. There are several large trees with dense canopies in the exhibit and a few scattered smaller trees. All the trees are protected by hot-wire, so there are some logs for the gorillas to climb. If you were to change the species of trees it would look a lot like many of the lion exhibits at other zoos.

    I watched a young gorilla push another gorilla down the steep sides of the moat. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to result in any injuries, but it made me question how safe those steep moats are.

    Other charismatic primates can be found past the gorillas at Lemur Walk. Visitors can enter the netted enclosure to encounter ring-tailed lemurs. The climbing structures inside are reminiscent of scaffolding. Unfortunately, the ring-tailed lemurs were huddled together and sleeping during my visit. When the primates are active, walk-through lemur exhibits provide memorable up-close experiences.

    In the next walkthrough exhibit, Lorikeet Landing, you can purchase cups of nectar. The brilliantly colored birds use their brush-like tongues to lap up nectar. I had a great experience feeding lorikeets at the Jurong Birdpark over a year before, but the birds didn’t seem hungry at the Safari Park, so I just watched other people try to feed the birds.

    Hidden Jungle was closed for renovations during my visit. Hidden Jungle is a climate-controlled indoor rainforest exhibition. Insects, reptiles and amphibians are showcased in terrariums in an underground section. The path moves to the understory and canopy with lush tropical plants and free-flying birds. Butterflies are displayed seasonally.

    Nearby, you can encounter more flying birds at the Benbough Theater during one of the scheduled presentations. I lost track of time and forgot to come back on time for the show.

    I walked a loop through Nairobi Village and Safari Base Camp to see more small animals. A colony of Rodrigues fruit bats is housed in a darkened building across a harp wire barrier. It was very popular and would have made a great exhibit at the San Diego Zoo too. There’s a petting kraal, nursery, and some small animal exhibits set in a village setting. More natural exhibits for meerkats, palm-nut vultures, warthogs, black duiker, and dik-dik are found around the lagoon. Many of these exhibits around the lagoon are probably missed by most visitors, but I enjoyed how they encouraged exploration around Nairobi Village.

    From Nairobi Village, I headed out on the trails to see the rest of the African animals.

    There are spectacular panoramic views of the African field exhibits and landscape from an overlook platform. It’s a great preview of the African Tram ride and builds anticipation. Unfortunately, the large balloon ride below the overlook can sometimes obstruct views. Descending the overlook brings you to African Woods and African Outpost (both were formerly known as Heart of Africa).

    African Woods and African Outpost both have large naturalistic exhibits set in a landscaped setting. The first paddock holds bontebok antelope. Through a veil of arid plantings and twisted dried wood, glimpses of the striking antelope can be seen. The next paddock holds large herds of Eastern giant eland and Sudan red-fronted gazelle. Spikey Aloe succulents help disguise the overhang of the exhibit barrier. An open-topped exhibit with a simulated African buffalo skeleton holds Egyptian vulture and hooded vulture. The trail becomes an elevated boardwalk through a more wooded area with mixed species exhibits on both sides. One exhibit held okapi and red river hogs. The other exhibit held gerenuk and several species of birds including kori bustard. Past these exhibits, the trail is shaded by large thorn acacias with yellow-green trunks and branches. The landscape here abounds with exotic African succulents and flowers. In the Abyssinian ground hornbill exhibit burrowed views of the arid landscape can be seen over low simulated earth-bank barriers. Nearby, long-legged secretary birds can be found. Another arid exhibit has an interesting mix of warthogs and bat-eared fox. A creep (posts spaced at distances to allow passage of one species and exclude another) gives the bat-eared fox a private space away from the warthogs. Past this exhibit, large palms on both sides of the pathway meet overhead like an arch to form a natural entrance to the lagoon boardwalk. Kikuyu colobus monkeys, flamingos, and other birds inhabit islands in the lagoon. Another island has a research camp. The path ascends past the lagoon to expansive views of a grassy cheetah exhibit and the open African Plains exhibits and rolling hills beyond. Together African Woods and African Outpost would cover a significant proportion of most American zoos. They are large scale exhibits, but the landscapes are varied and well-detailed. The animals have large enclosures but are still close enough to see and appreciate. African Woods and African Outpost have a great scale for a well-landscaped walking trail.

    The African Plains (African field exhibits) has a much larger scale. Several of the exhibits are bigger than African Woods and African Outpost combined. Together, the African field exhibits are over 200 acres and several times bigger than almost every urban American zoo! Their scale is enhanced further by burrowed views of hills and mountains. The expansive views of animals in a vast natural landscape are part of what makes these exhibits so special.

    Another special feature of these exhibits are the large herds of African ungulates they accommodate. The highlight was watching a herd of giraffe. The individual giraffes were spaced quite far apart from one another, but it was clear that they were still socializing and moving in a herd. It takes a lot of space to showcase those behaviors.

    Many of the African field exhibits have several mixed species.

    Part of the African Plains can be seen from overlooks, but it’s too large to be fully appreciated on walking trails. It’s predominantly experienced through the African Tram ride and other up-charge safari ride experiences.

    African Tram rides are included in general admission and it is the flagship attraction at the Park. It wasn’t very busy at the Safari Park on my visit, but I still waited over 20 minutes in the African Tram line. I passed the time in the waiting area by watching lowland nyala graze behind the loading center.

    The African Tram is a guided tour of the African Plains exhibits in a long open-air vehicle. A total of roughly 20-30 species of ungulates and about 10 species of large birds can be seen. The most notable species encountered are giraffe, black rhinoceros, and white rhinoceros. It takes about 30 minutes for the tour.

    The focus of the African Tram isn’t on creating a dynamic ride, but on giving a good over-view of the field exhibits and the animals that inhabit them. It’s not as dramatic or thrilling as Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It travels around the perimeter of the exhibits. The landscape is very open and there are few trees, so the sightlines are long and there aren’t any surprises.

    Along the trip, the vehicle stops periodically where there are good views of the animals. The guide identifies animals and discusses their captive care and natural history. In addition, the guide explains the Park’s conservation mission and projects.

    The open-air tram replaced the monorail that also went through the Asian field exhibits, which are no longer visible for the general admission public. To see those exhibits you must purchase a safari ticket. In the future, I would love to see a ride through the Asian Savanna offered with general admission. A separate ride through the Asian exhibits would help break up the experience of viewing the field exhibits so that it seems less monotonous.

    Even with the omission of the Asian field exhibits, the African Tram Tour is still a great experience! The sight of large herds of ungulates in vast landscapes is spectacular. The tram ride complements the walking trails and adds variety to the Safari Park. The tram also provides great expansive views of the surrounding countryside.

    The African Plains exhibits also provide an amazing backdrop to Lion Camp. The lion exhibit slopes at the back to hide the barrier so that the lion exhibit appears continuous with the African field exhibits beyond. The exhibit is open and grassy to maintain views of the exhibits beyond, but it also has palms and other trees to shade lounging lions. From there the lions can watch African ungulates roam the field exhibits in the distance. Visitors can view the lions from an elevated boardwalk or up-close from behind windows set between artificial kopje formations. The kopje formations also hide the lion holding building. Other theming includes an abandoned Safari Park vehicle that has become the lion’s favorite bed. The exhibit has complex and varied topography to create refuges from conspecifics and a more complex perimeter to patrol. Some of the lower levels of the exhibit are quartered off by hot-wire, but there are still significant areas of usable space. On its own the lion exhibit space is impressive, but what really makes this exhibit exceptional are the burrowed views of the vast African field exhibits.

    A sit-down restaurant in The Grove also has great views of the vast African Plains exhibits. I almost ate lunch there but decided to hold out for another unique spot I had seen earlier that visit. The Grove has many tents that are used for Roar and Snore Safari overnight camping. The next time I consider visiting the Safari Park I’ll have to remember to try to book an overnight stay there! There’s also an elevated platform you can ascend in the Grove to get panoramic views of the African Plains exhibits.

    I concluded my walking safari of African animals with a visit to Elephant Valley. This exhibit has two large connected exhibits for African elephants. There have been several births over the years and the herd numbered 13 individuals during my visit (5 adults and 8 young). Elephants have not bred well in American zoos, so the multiple births here is a significant achievement that was recognized with the 2014 AZA Edward H. Bean Award for advances in captive propagation.

    It’s difficult to maintain grass in elephant exhibits and 13 individuals is significantly more elephants than most American zoo exhibits hold. One of the two exhibits had no grass and the other had just a few patches. The elephants have deep pools to submerge in and mud wallows to cool off in. A shade structure is themed as large slabs of rock.

    Elephant Valley doesn’t have the level of built-in enrichment that I saw at Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo. The shape of the connected yards at Elephant Lands was good for encouraging the elephants to travel too.

    The viewing at Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo was also better. The exhibits there are long with matching long visitor pathways. Both elephant exhibits in Elephant Valley are very deep and narrow so many of the elephants were quite far from the viewing areas.

    Elephant Valley was once easily one of the largest elephant exhibits in North America, but it is no longer as exemplary. Concerns about elephant health and well-being have prompted American zoos to make significant strides in both the size and complexity of their elephant exhibits. Elephants have long lifespans, so it is not yet clear whether these improvements are sufficient to elevate captive elephant welfare and quality of life to an applaudable level.

    Elephant Valley is a few acres, but it’s still smaller than many of the African field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Elephants are large animals with complex social interactions and benefit from sufficient space to explore and manage social dynamics. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a large facility with great opportunities to create exceptionally large exhibits. A significantly bigger elephant exhibit could have been an elongated shape with viewing along the length.

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park does such a good job with many of their exhibits that it builds up expectations. After seeing giraffe in vast exhibits I wanted to see elephants in a similar setting.

    Back in Nairobi Village I ate lunch in a patio overlooking the shoebill storks. I was ravenous by then and devoured my lunch. I didn’t inspire the male shoebill stork. He refused to eat any fish he was offered by the keeper. He tossed his head back and made loud bill-clattering calls. With his wings spread out, he lunged out at the keeper. Apparently, the keeper had changed his appearance a little. Shoebill storks are very sensitive to changes and can respond aggressively to new people. The keeper left the male shoebill unfed, but he wasn’t worried because the birds hunt fish from the lagoon. The female shoebill stork was much easier to deal with and snatched up the fish she was offered. Shoebill stork remain stationary for most of the day, so seeing all that activity from them was a great way to cap off my lunch!

    From Safari Base Camp I walked down to Tiger Trail.

    Tiger Trail
    is exceptional from its entrance. A tiger sculpture made of coiled branches stands at the foot of a fig tree. An archway looks like a slice of a Sumatran longhouse. The roof of the archway is made of branches like those in the tiger sculpture. Behind the archway there’s an allee of bamboo plantings that form a living tunnel that leads to a sculpture of a tiger resting on a pillar. A clearing features a children’s play area themed like an illegal logging camp in the rainforest. The path through dense vegetation leads to the first tiger exhibit.

    Tiger Trail has a total of three exhibits for Sumatran tigers. Adult tigers are mostly solitary animals. Having three exhibits lets the Safari Park hold more individuals to create a better breeding program. Each exhibit is set among dense tropical plantings and has a variety of viewing experiences.

    One of those viewing areas is accessed from a narrow adventure trail. It’s easy to overlook the trail’s entrance among the vegetation. The trail leads to a secluded window overlooking one of the tiger exhibits. It feels like you’ve entered the exhibit with the tiger.

    Another unique viewing area features underwater views of tigers. The shelter is themed as a small market stand and features a deceptively realistic fake tiger pelt hanging from the ceiling. It is intended to convey the threat of poaching to wild tigers. The tiger exhibit continues past this viewing shelter and the visitor path becomes flanked by tiger exhibits.

    Through foliage visitors can catch glimpses of the tigers along the length of the exhibits. At times it feels like you’re tracking tigers through the forest and at other times it feels like you’re being stalked by tigers.

    Most visitors gravitate to the viewing windows set in the Sambutan Longhouse, which doubles as the holding facility for the tigers. The design of the 9,000 square foot wooden building was inspired by Sumatran longhouses. It has a distinctive steeply sloping roof and exceptionally intricate details. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture. Interpretive materials inside the building focus on conservation efforts to save tigers. It also has great views through tall glass windows into both tiger exhibits encountered earlier. The two walls of windows looking into one of the tiger exhibits are perpendicular to each other and form an L. This creates a shady corner in the exhibit where the tigers enjoy resting in full view of visitors. Artificial hot-rocks further encourage the tigers to lounge by the windows.

    The third tiger exhibit can be viewed from over the hand railing of an elevated pathway outside the Sambutan Longhouse. The pathway travels under a ledge with a crashing waterfall. It took me a while to even realize that the space below me was another tiger exhibit.

    With three exhibits and multiple viewing areas, visitors have a good chance of encountering a tiger. The viewing areas are so varied and unpredictable that it feels like there could be tigers anywhere in the landscape.

    On my visit I saw two Sumatran tigers, but one of the brothers stole more of my attention. He patrolled the exhibit with a deliberation and repeatedly spray marked. Even when he stopped and laid down It felt like the intensity never left him. He would get up, raise his chin, wrinkle his nose, open his mouth, curl back his upper lip, and stick out his tongue; a flehmen response. This behavior draws chemicals into the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) where pheromones and other signals can be interpreted. His roars almost had a yearning quality. One of the female tigers at the Safari Park had gone into estrous the day before and he seemed intoxicated.

    I also saw that male tiger interact with a keeper who was behind a training wall. The tiger performed basic behaviors like presenting an open mouth and was rewarded with some meat. The tiger chooses whether to participate and is free to leave at any time. These positive reinforcement sessions help the keepers monitor the tiger’s health and help build a positive relationship between the tigers and keepers.

    Tigers enjoy bathing, but I didn’t see either of the tigers swim that day. Each of the three tiger exhibits has a water feature. All three exhibits also have: lots of varied topography; plants to mark and hide amongst; logs to climb and scratch; heated rocks to warm up; and a mix of sunny and shady areas. The complexity of the exhibits maximizes the use of space.

    Tiger Trail has a total footprint of over 5 acres, which includes the visitor areas and holding. Each individual tiger exhibit is smaller than the older tiger exhibit at the Safari Park. I am not sure whether the tigers are rotated between exhibits, but that’s likely and it would increase the overall space available to them. I overheard a couple of people complain that the tigers didn’t have enough space. Enclosure size isn’t everything though and the tigers make better use of Tiger Trail than their previous exhibit.

    Tiger Trail was designed to create more inspirational experiences with tigers.

    I’ve seen tigers many times before at zoos, but I was still enthralled by the tigers at Tiger Trail. The tigers seemed majestic and powerful. Tigers intrinsically have those characteristics, but context can weaken or strengthen them. The surroundings must be majestic too and the tigers must look like they belong there. Tiger Trails is beautifully detailed. With their striped coats the tigers seemed to dissolve into their surroundings when they were seen through broken vegetation. When the tigers moved through patches of sunlight and suddenly came into full view they seemed so powerful. Tiger Trails left me with powerful impressions and memories of tigers.

    Tiger Trails is outstanding and one of my favorite zoo exhibits. It’s a deserving winner of the 2015 AZA Top Honors Exhibit Award.

    It’s not the only moving exhibit at the Safari Park.

    Condor Ridge is also inspirational. I was awed the moment I saw the California condors off in the distance. The elevated boardwalk in Condor Ridge has long open views to the condor aviary and the mountains beyond. California condors are so big (North America’s largest flying bird) and noticeable with their glossy black feathers that you can see them from a distance.

    The California condor aviary at Condor Ridge was constructed over an existing boulder formation. It’s both integrated into the wider landscape and a prominent alluring feature.

    The exhibit is situated on a site with the kind of natural updrafts that California condors need to soar. It overlooks a panoramic area, which is another important habitat feature for these scavengers. It’s possible that wild California condors could once be found where Condor Ridge is now!

    This exhibit is symbolically special because it represents the comeback of an iconic animal that was on the verge of extinction.

    By 1982 there were only 22 California condors in existence and they almost disappeared forever. The last remaining wild bird was brought into captivity in 1987. The Safari Park had half the world’s population. Off-exhibit aviaries were used to breed the birds. The programs were successful, and the population grew significantly. Reintroductions began in 1991 and have continued. Births in the wild populations now exceed deaths and the population is growing.

    The recovery of California condors is not just good for that species, but wildlife conservation in general in the Southwest United States. It provides hope for recovery. California has lost many of it’s former large animals. California condors are big, social, and intelligent. They’re a charismatic flagship species that engage people with conservation.

    I was drawn by the California condors further into Condor Ridge. On the way to the condors a series of smaller exhibits for animals from America’s Southwest are passed. Unfortunately, all the animals had been moved off exhibit during my visit in April because of construction for Walkabout Australia. I still enjoyed the Southwestern plantings and the scenic views from the elevated walkway.

    As I approached the condor aviary the Baja Garden (part of World Gardens) became visible. It was spectacular! The garden has over 200 boojum trees. These tall succulents have a narrow cylindrical shape with short branches and leaves jutting out along its length. The trunks aren’t straight and sturdy but lean over. The new leaves on the boojum shined in the sunlight. The boojum looked like they were exploding with life. The gardens were inaccessible because of Walkabout Australia construction, so I couldn’t explore them further.

    By these gardens, there’s a wooden viewing shelter sitting on tall stilts. The shelter has extensive interpretation about the recovery of California condors. One side has views into the rocky bighorn sheep enclosure on the mountainside. The most significant feature of the shelter though is that it provides elevated close views of the California condors in their aviary.

    The California condors had been quite busy flying around on my way to the aviary, but once I got closer they seemed to have settled down. The condors were perched on the rocky outcrops or the top of California fan palms. They were looking out to vast panoramic views of the valleys and mountains.

    Condor Ridge had given me some powerful memories, but there was one more incredible experience to come.

    Back by Lion Camp I watched the Cheetah Run demonstration. Throngs of people had already gathered in the area twenty minutes before the run was set to begin. The 330-foot long grassy track is sufficient for the cheetahs to reach their top speed of 70 miles per hour! The cheetahs make their runs after their dog companion has already run the track. The dog’s body language and comfortability around people help the cheetah relax. Sometimes the cheetah chooses not to run at all, but that day the cheetah did two runs. Within the first few strides it was running at full speed! In 5.3 seconds the cheetah had already finished the 330-foot run. On average, it ran the track over 40 miles per hour. I have watched lots of videos of cheetahs running before, but it’s incredible to experience in person!

    I know that some people would dismiss this cheetah demonstration like they would dismiss a circus performance, but I feel differently. I like that the run is celebratory of the cheetah and their nature. It showcases natural cheetah behavior in a way that you couldn’t do in a traditional exhibit. The cheetahs aren’t forced to perform. It seemed like the cheetah enjoyed the run.

    After the cheetah runs, I used the last half hour of my visit to leisurely walk back to the entrance.

    Overall Review

    The most unique feature of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are the large field exhibits set in a vast landscape of mountains. They’re spectacular and memorable.

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park may be famous for their vast field exhibits, but my experiences with those exhibits, including waiting in line where they are visible, made up less than a fifth of my seven-and-a-half-hour visit! None of the Asian Savanna exhibits, which are a significant proportion of the total field exhibits, are visible with general admission.

    Thankfully, the other exhibits aren’t thoughtless add-ons. They’re mostly exceptional and very well-detailed. Safari Base Camp and Nairobi Village are exceptionally well themed and have quite a few animal exhibits. Gorilla Forest is not nearly as natural and inspiring as the best American gorilla exhibits, but it is far from terrible. African Woods and African Outpost have beautiful and varied landscapes. Lion Camp is picturesque. Elephant Valley has two large exhibits with a total of 13 African elephants. Tiger Trail and Condor Ridge are both spectacular. The gardens were closed during my visit but looked very impressive. Finally, Walkabout Australia opened after my visit. It looks like a promising addition. The Safari Park has a lot of highlights. None of the exhibits are detracting. The least appealing exhibits at the Safari Park are still considerably better than the worst exhibits at many zoos.

    If you took away all the field exhibits the Safari Diego Zoo Safari Park would still be a great zoo. Without the field exhibits, off-display enclosures, and protected natural areas, the facility would be about 100 acres-the size of the San Diego Zoo. I think that 100 acres is a great balance between exhibits and walkability. A bigger zoo would require too much walking for many visitors.

    The least exceptional thing about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is the collection of animals.

    There’s roughly 30 mammal species on display outside of African Plains. Every zoo I visited on my trip had more mammal species on display than that. The African Plains has about 20-30 species of mammals. In total, the Safari Park has 50-60 species of mammals on display which is more than some major American zoos, but still significantly less than that at the San Diego Zoo.

    The Safari Park does have more species of ungulates than the San Diego Zoo. However, ungulates are not nearly as popular as primates. The only primates at the Safari Park are western lowland gorilla, ring-tailed lemurs, and Kikuyu black and white colobus. The San Diego Zoo has over twenty primate species including western lowland gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos (pygmy chimps).

    The Safari Park doesn’t have as many types of charismatic megafauna as the San Diego Zoo. Unlike the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park has no hippos, bears, large canids, koalas, crocodiles, Komodo dragons, or penguins.

    The Safari Park also has a smaller collection of other animals than many other American zoos, especially compared to the San Diego Zoo. Nairobi Village and Hidden Jungle (closed during my visit) each have less than 10 species of reptiles and amphibians and I believe the only other reptiles usually on display are desert tortoise at Condor Ridge (off display during my visit). That’s just a small fraction of the reptiles and amphibians on display at the San Diego Zoo. The Safari Park has no displays of fish and just a few invertebrate displays in the Hidden Jungle (closed during my visit). The Safari Park does have a good variety of birds though. When Hidden Jungle is open the Safari Park has more bird species than a lot of American zoos, including the Oregon Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo. San Diego Zoo has 2-3 times as many bird species as the Safari Park.

    American zoos are moving away from a collections first mindset. Many zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, have significantly reduced their collections to improve animal welfare and the visitor experience. People still enjoy seeing a large number and variety of animals though.

    I struggled to see everything on my full day visit to the San Diego Zoo, but easily saw everything at the Safari Park. Hidden Jungle, the World Gardens, and Walkabout Australia were closed or under construction during my visit and most of the animals were off display at Condor Ridge. Now that all those exhibits are open, I think there’s enough exhibits to make the walkable portion of the Safari Park great.

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park isn’t just a walkable zoo though, you can also go on safari through spectacular field exhibits. Those vast field exhibits are nicely complemented by the walkable zoo. You can see large herds of animals in a vast space and get close to other animals in walk-throughs. There’s a range of experiences that I haven’t encountered at a zoo before.

    When the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is viewed comprehensively I think it’s one of America’s best zoos. The Safari Park is set in a beautiful mountain landscape with an appealing climate. A lot of great conservation work is done at the Safari Park. There are numerous off-display breeding and research facilities. There’s a lot for visitors too. The Safari Park has a large walkable zoo with great exhibit consistency and memorable experiences. It also has unique vast field exhibits. The two complement each other. Safari Base/Nairobi Village is a great service hub for both these attractions. The only thing detracting from the experience was that it was very difficult for me to get to and from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park!
    Last edited: 14 Jul 2018
  8. nczoofan

    nczoofan Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    5 Jul 2018
    The viewing did disappoint me when I visited as well. The exhibit is very large, but I do wish it was even larger given the massive herd they maintain. I always wished they would develop a chute from the elephant exhibits into one of the savanna areas and mix them with some hoofstock, provided those species had a seperation area.
    StoppableSan and DevinL like this.
  9. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    Yes, it would be awesome to see the African elephants at the Safari Park mixed in with hoofstock in a massive field exhibit! It takes a lot of effort to manage elephants in a mixed-species exhibit though.

    @nczoofan What were you opinions on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? Do you agree with me that it's one of America's best zoos? What did you like and dislike about it compared to the North Carolina Zoo?
    StoppableSan and nczoofan like this.
  10. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Well-Known Member 15+ year member

    12 Aug 2008
    California, USA
    The reason for the somewhat awkward viewing of the current Safari Park elephant exhibits is that the main way they were meant to be viewed was eliminated. Most people watched the elephants from the monorail, which moved down the middle of the two exhibits (Asian elephants were on the left and African elephants on the right).

    What is now the main viewing area was a rather secondary viewing area for people who wanted to see the elephants for longer than you could from the monorail. The now unused Tembo Stadium was another way of watching the elephants close-up. They were doing elephant training demos with the African elephants in it, but for some reason stopped.

    The whole elephant viewing area there could use some rethinking, as their social herd of elephants is a spectacular experience to watch, but not as accessible as it once was, another casualty of the monorail's demise.
    Last edited: 14 Jul 2018
    snowleopard, StoppableSan and DevinL like this.
  11. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    How negative do my zoo reviews seem? One of my family members read my San Diego Zoo Safari Park review and said it sounded like I didn't like the place.
  12. TZDugong

    TZDugong Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    17 Nov 2017
    Toronto, ON
    The Safari Park review didn’t sound negative, although I’m surprised you didn’t like the field exhibits!
  13. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    I did like the field exhibits! I love how open they are and how they seem to extend into the surrounding mountain landscape! There is a vastness to the scale that's very unique for a zoo and suggestive of giant African landscapes!

    Apparently, I did not convey that well, which is my mistake.
  14. TZDugong

    TZDugong Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    17 Nov 2017
    Toronto, ON
    Oh sorry, my mistake. I think I just misread a part that basically said “even without the field exhibits the Safari park is great” and thought that meant you didn’t like the field exhibits.
  15. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    When I visit zoos I love to think about what they could become or what they could be. I think my reviews have focused too much on comparisons and criticisms and lost sight of the experiences and my appreciation of what the zoos do have.

    In addition, I've concentrated on cataloguing details so much that I worry my reviews have become much too lengthy for most readers. I've posted details about using public transport, but I also question the value of that because I doubt anyone would visit American zoos in a similar way.

    I am questioning whether my reviews are a good thing to post on Zoochat. I will likely end them with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park review that I've already posted. I may trial a more concise and positive type of review and restart from there if I think it will be a resource that's appreciated.
    BigNate likes this.
  16. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    I wanted to temporally separate the field exhibits from the walk-able zoo to show that the walkable zoo alone is a great attraction. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is so exceptional because it has both a walkable zoo and field exhibits.

    TZDugong, it is not your fault for getting confused, it is my fault for writing something that wasn't clear in the first place.
  17. m30t

    m30t Well-Known Member

    9 Dec 2014
    @DevinL try not to be too hard on yourself.
    Finding the right balance while writing a zoo is no easy task.
    My own two cents; there is a lot of good and worthwhile components of your reviews.
    The trials you faced in using public transportation on this trip add a real human story to your reviews and is definitely a strength.
    What I would personally recommend removing from the reviews are some of the more generic discussions. For example, discussing the recovery of the California condor. This is an important story,but one I'd wager most people on here are already aware of.
    Similarly, in some of the reviews you make mention of the AZA recommendations for exhibits and how an exhibit you are viewing fits in them. Again, an important and interesting consideration, but in the interest of being concise maybe something that could be omitted?
    I'd strive to focus on your experiences (including traveling to and from the zoo) at the zoo, with the exhibits/animals and your impressions of them.
    You have made some good observations in your reviews so far!
    BigNate likes this.
  18. DevinL

    DevinL Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    11 Jul 2017
    @m30t Thank you for the feedback :) .
  19. lintworm

    lintworm Well-Known Member 15+ year member

    27 Oct 2008
    I am very pleased you do this, as it is something I would always seriously consider.
  20. mweb08

    mweb08 Well-Known Member

    12 Mar 2009
    Baltimore, MD
    I think you're over critical, but that's from my perspective, obviously your perspective is different. Like I said in the San Diego perfect zoo thread, I think how detail oriented one is in judging exhibits is a big reason for the divide in that thread. So there's nothing wrong with either approach. You do you. And you're doing a great job writing comprehensive reviews from your perspective. However, as some who thinks that the San Diego Zoo is the best zoo in the country, I didn't love your final line of that review.