Travel writing :: San Diego Wild Animal Park

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This article was published in The Wichita Eagle’s travel section.

Getting Wild in San Diego

Rocky slowly lowers his six-foot neck across the back of the flatbed truck where 10 eager feeders are holding crunchy biscuits over their heads for the Baringo giraffe. His rough, gray tongue – nearly 20 inches long – slurps the treat from your fingers and he begins slowly chewing while eyeing the next biscuit.

One of the tallest living land mammals has just eaten out of your hand. You were close enough to hug the beautiful, mild-mannered creature, but safari guides warned you that a slight swing of his head would feel like getting hit with a 50-pound bowling ball. So instead you sneak a quick pat of his fuzzy mane.

Soon you’ll be dropping apple slices into the mouth of an Indian rhinoceros and rubbing his horn. Once widespread in southeast Asia, the whole population has dwindled to less than 1,100 living in India.

But you didn’t have to travel to another continent for this experience. As a visitor to the San Diego Wild Animal Park you have just fed a successfully reproducing family group of Indian rhinos and the first third-generation offspring in the Western hemisphere.

For years tourists and animal enthusiasts have flocked to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and for good reason. The 100-acre zoo offers 4,000 animals representing 800 species, including some of the world’s rarest wildlife: giant pandas (and Hua Mei, the only panda cub in the U.S.), koalas and polar bears.

But for those looking for a truly unique animal encounter, travel 32 miles northeast of the zoo to another Zoological Society of San Diego facility – the 1,800-acre San Diego Wild Animal Park. While the park doesn’t have the variety of the zoo (it has about 3,500 animals representing 260 species), it gives you an the experience of an African safari.

Near the city of Escondido, the San Diego Wild Animal Park began in 1969 as a breeding facility for rare and endangered species, and that still is its main function. Originally, breeding with the eventual hope of reintroducing the animals into their natural habitat was the only purpose of the preserve. When the expense of feeding all the animals became overwhelming in 1972, the park opened its gates to the public. Still, the park is designed first for the animals, and second for the people who come to observe them.

Whatever your beliefs about keeping animals in captivity, the park has a number of breeding success stories and is recognized throughout the world for its efforts. Thirty-three endangered species have successfully bred here, and the park is considered the authority in breeding rhinos. The male southern white rhino who lives in the park has sired 50 offspring over 13 years, helping to save the species.

More than half of the endangered California condors in existence were hatched at the facility. In 2000, the park opened Condor Ridge, a North American wilderness exhibit that focuses on a dozen rare and endangered native species and the story of their survival in the wild. Even though the park has worked with the birds for years, this was the first time visitors were able to view the California condor, North America’s largest flying bird.

The park’s breeding efforts have been successful in part because its large acreage allows for huge enclosures, which make the animals feel more at home and, therefore, they behave accordingly. That’s the draw for visitors, too; territorial disputes and competition, herding behavior, courtship and defensive behavior are all on display.

Animals that are naturally found together are kept together; discrete fences separate the animals that are found in different regions of the world (East Africa, Asian Plains, South Africa, etc.). Entire herds of Cape buffalo, giraffes, rhinos, wildebeests and other hoofed mammals are among the hundreds of animals you can see roaming the scenic rolling landscape of East Africa. You won’t, however, see predators among the mix of birds and mammals. A few acres are set aside for zoo-like enclosures with smaller occupants as well as predators.

The large habitats make up the majority of the park, though, and are measured in acres rather than feet.

More than 1,800 acres means a lot of walking, but the best way to start your visit at the park is by riding the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, a 5-mile electric monorail ride that shows visitors many areas that can only be seen from the railway. The ride is a 55-minute guided tour of the major field enclosures of Asia and Africa. Safari guides provide narrative and stop the train to point out interesting behaviors or newborns.

Taking the first train of the day when the temperatures are cooler gives you the best opportunity to see the animals out and active. It also gives you an overview of the park and a chance to decide which enclosures you want to visit by foot. Make sure you bring a pair of binoculars, and if you plan to take pictures a zoom lens will be helpful. For the best view you should try to sit on the right side of the open-air train.

Many visitors opt to take the train ride several times throughout the day. You’re sure to see and hear something different every time. Although you can see the majority of the park on the train ride, you’ll miss out if you don’t visit some of the other areas, such as Lorikeet Landing where you can invite colorful birds to perch on your arm and drink nectar from your hand. The park also has a bird show and an elephant show daily, as well as special events throughout the year.

Sign up for the photo caravan tour for an even more authentic safari. No more than 10 visitors ride in the back of a flatbed truck (outfitted with seats) into the animal enclosures, where you have great photo opportunities and the chance to feed some animals – like Rocky the giraffe. The pace is slower than the train ride, and knowledgeable guides provide in-depth details on the park’s animals and breeding efforts.

The opportunity to get within feet of a number of massive, endangered species is well worth the additional cost. There are three choices of tours: Tour 1 goes to East Africa and the Asian Plains, offering the chance to feed giraffes and rhinos; Tour 2 goes to South Africa and the Asian Waterhole, stopping to feed giraffes; and Tour 3 goes to all four enclosures, stopping to feed giraffes and rhinos. The fee is $98.95 for the shorter tours that last a little under two hours, $145 for the three-hour tour.

The three-hour photo caravan tour won’t give you much time to see the rest of the exhibits; it might be better for a subsequent visit to the park. If you take the shorter tour, you’ll still need to plan wisely in order to see everything.

The Wild Animal Park is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended summer hours. San Diego’s ideal climate allows most of the animals to live outdoors year-round, but the animals are often more active during the winter months when temperatures are somewhat cooler.

General admission is $26.50 per adult (seniors are $23.85), $19.50 for children ages 3 to 11. Children 2 and under are free. This includes all shows, exhibits and the railway. Parking is $6 per vehicle. If you plan to visit the park and the zoo, check into a two-park discount ticket.

This article was published in 2003 – please check http://www.sdzsafaripark.org/ for updates to tours, activities, fees and operating hours.

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