A Zoo Hater Confronts The San Diego Zoo And The San Diego Safari Park

lions san diego zoo safari parkI do not like zoos. I have no ideological problem with them, but every time I bring my children to a zoo, I feel drained – financially, physically and mentally – by the time we’re ready to leave. When my wife and I had the first of our two children in 2007, I don’t think I’d been to a zoo in more than 20 years.
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But since then, I’ve been coerced into visiting zoos in Chicago, Brookfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, Zurich, Toronto, Baraboo, Wisconsin and a host of other places. And this week, I somehow got roped into taking my children to not one but two zoos: the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.

These are reputed to be two of the best zoos in the world, but they’re also huge places that you can’t very well just duck into for a quick visit. Other than placating my sons, ages 3 and 5, my goal for the visits was to find out if these places were worthy of the hype and to determine if even a zoo-hater like me could be won over.


san diego zoo safari parkMy first impression of the Safari Park was overwhelmingly positive. You walk into the place and there’s a beached old Land Rover parked on the side of a small hill, next to a rushing waterfall. Speakers pipe in cool, tribal African music and the lush, tropical surroundings make you feel like you’re in the Hollywood version of a jungle set.

I had a vague impression that we were going to have our butts carted all around the place in some sort of vehicle or cart, but that isn’t exactly how it works. With the regular general admission ticket ($44), you get a 25-minute ride on the Africa Tram Safari, but have to walk the rest of the place. But if you want to spend more, there is a dizzying array of more expensive safaris, ranging from the $84 cart safari to the $599 ultimate VIP safari. Only in America can you drop a few grand on a trip to the zoo, right?


We opted for the cheapest ticket and I thought the Africa tram ride was more than enough for our needs. It’s a narrated ride that is about as close to an African safari as you’ll get in the U.S. You can probably see many of the animals we saw – giraffes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, antelope, zebras and others – in a lot of zoos, but here you’re seeing them in a huge open space that looks like a much more natural habitat. (But if you want to get very close to the animals, you need to go on one of the more expensive safaris.)

lions san diego zoo safari parkAnd what’s more, our guide, Doug, even took it upon himself to give us some tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint. (I’ll be sure to slow down on the highways, Doug, thanks for the suggestion.)

My favorite animal was Vila, a 55-year-old gorilla that’s a great, great, great grandma who is believed to be one of the oldest “known-age” gorillas in the world. My sons dragged us all over the 1,800-acre park in search of all their favorite animals too, and, while it was a bit exhausting, I loved the fact that there are a host of unpaved trails that make you feel as though you’re on a hike out in the woods.

It’s not a typical zoo vibe at all and I liked that. But you will definitely need to watch your wallet at the Safari Park. There are opportunities to blow cash everywhere – you can even pay $6 to cut the Africa Tram line. If you’re on a budget, definitely bring your own food and drinks. A fountain soda goes for $5.19, a cup of soup is more than $7 and all of the other food and beverage options are similarly overpriced.

The San Diego Zoo, located in beautiful Balboa Park, in the city of San Diego, is more of a typical zoo experience, only better. The grounds are lush and expansive and the variety of interesting animals from all over the world is pretty astonishing. Everyone loves the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but there you can walk for miles and see only a handful of animals. At the San Diego Zoo, the variety of wildlife in a similar sized space is far more impressive but you don’t get the feeling that the animal enclosures are cramped either.

macaw san diego zooLike the Safari Park, there are a host of expensive tour options and expensive souvenirs and refreshments, but given the fact that it’s right in the city, as opposed to the Safari Park, which is in a much more quiet, somewhat remote area, there’s no reason why you can’t duck out to get a bite to eat or simply bring your own lunch.

The amazing thing about the San Diego Zoo is that it really is like a little trip around the world. We saw animals from all over the planet: komodo dragons from Indonesia, gorillas from Africa, pink flamingos from the Caribbean, an anaconda from South America, and crested porcupines from India to name just a handful. And I saw a whole host of animals I’d barely even heard of before: a mang mountain viper, a Bornea sun bear, a Manchurian brown bear, an Andean bear, a West African dwarf crocodile, an Andean Cock-of-the Rock birds, and assassin bugs to name just a few.

I also liked the descriptions and the attempts to humanize the animals. We sat and watched the six gorillas for some time and I though the descriptions of their personalities was spot on: Paul “The Player” was indeed “handsome, charismatic and playful,” as he laid on his back, spread eagle with his hands covering his eyes, Ndjia, “The Thinker” sat in Rodin’s “The Thinker” pose, and Frank “The Tank” was every bit the “strong, independent, playful” lad he was made out to be.

san diego zoo signA few words of advice if you are going to be pushing children around this zoo at least part of the time. Go down Center Street and Park Way first toward the Pandas and Polar Bears because it’s a very long, steep hill. We did this part of the zoo last, when my kids were too tired to walk at all and I was exhausted pushing them in a stroller back up the hill to cap the day. And if your kids are as inquisitive as mine, don’t hand them the colorful map showing all the animals until you’re in the car ride going home.

My 5-year-old would see an image of an animal he liked -Porcupine! Zebra! Parrot! Bug house!- and then insist that we charge off to find that animal immediately, leaving me feeling a bit like Magellan looking for a spice route to the West Indies.


If you only have time to visit one zoo in the San Diego area, where you go depends on your preferences and where you’re staying. If you don’t want to stray outside the city limits, the zoo is the obvious choice. Those who want a more atypical experience and like the idea of seeing animals in a more natural habitat along hiking trails, trams or safaris should consider the Safari Park.

For sheer variety of animals, I’d go with the zoo – there are some 3,700 animals representing approximately 660 species in a 100-acre space, compared to about 2,600 animals representing about 300 species in an 1,800 acre space at the safari park. And the zoo has the advantage of free parking, though both of these places are worth visiting. Even if you hate zoos, like me.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Brazen Poaching Of Rare Rhinoceros Species In India

poaching, rhino
Two recent poaching incidents reveal the dangers faced by India’s rare animals, even when they are supposedly under protection.

The BBC reports that a one-horned rhino was shot in Assam when it wandered out of Kaziranga National Park. Poachers took its horn but the animal did not die. Park staff are now trying to save it. The park is home to about two-thirds of the world’s population of one-horned rhinos, which number in total fewer than 3,000 individuals. Thirteen of the animals have been poached in the park in the past nine months.

On the same day, the BBC reported the poaching of a tiger in a zoo. Poachers entered the Itanagar zoo in Arunachal Pradesh and hacked a female tiger into half a dozen pieces before being scared off by the security guards, who had been away eating dinner.

The Times of India reports that several employees have been fired over the zoo incident. No arrests have been made in either crime.

Poaching is a major problem in many countries because of the high demand for animal parts as trophies and for use in traditional medicine.

[Photo courtesy Mandeep Singh]

Triple-launch roller coaster Cheetah Hunt opens at Busch Gardens Tampa

Thousands were treated to Busch Gardens Tampa‘s new roller coaster Cheetah Hunt this past weekend. The new roller coaster is a lengthy 4,400 feet long and it boasts not one, but three separate launches. Cheetah Hunt speeds along the park’s African-themed back drop along the ground, above it, and also below it in a watery canyon. Like some of Busch Gardens Tampa’s other attractions, the ride incorporates its namesake in cheetah viewing area called Cheetah Run. It’s designed to give guests a close encounter with the cheetahs as they show off their legendary speed.

Some early reviews of Cheetah Hunt describe it as a fun family roller coaster that’s a step between the park’s smaller coasters like Scorpion and the park’s signature thrillers like Montu and SheiKra. If that’s an accurate depiction, then it’s likely a wise addition for Busch Gardens Tampa as they’re always competing with Orlando’s many family-oriented theme parks. Central Florida’s only going to get more competitive later this year when the new Legoland Florida opens. Cheetah Hunt was my most anticipated roller coaster opening in 2011 and these videos make me even more eager to get down to Florida. Learn more at CheetahHunt.com.


The worst zoo I ever saw

zoo, Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Lion ZooI feel sorry for my Harari friends.

During my stay in Harar, Ethiopia, they were so hospitable, so eager to ensure I had a 100% positive impression of their city and country. For the most part I did, and I left for the capital Addis Ababa with lots of great things to say about Ethiopia.

They should have warned me not to visit the Lion Zoo in Addis Ababa.

It’s billed as a natural wonder, where you can see rare Ethiopian black-maned lions descended from the pride that was kept in Haile Selassie’s palace. In reality, it’s a sad display of animal cruelty and neglect.

The lions, primates, and other animals are kept in undersized cages with bare concrete floors. They look bored, flabby, resigned. Several of them look sick. Visitors shout at the listless animals or even throw pebbles to get them to move. Some toss packets of chocolate or potato chips to the monkeys and laugh as they tear the packages apart to get to the food inside.

The worst are the lions, proud carnivores, kings of the wilderness, reduced to trapped objects of amusement for bored city dwellers who don’t give a shit about nature. The lions lie around most of the time, doing nothing. Occasionally one will get its feet, shake its dirty mane, take a few steps before realizing there’s nowhere to go, and then sit down with an air of defeat.

The whole place made me feel ill, yet I can’t feel morally superior. I come from a country where people freak out if someone beats a dog but cheer when a Third World country gets carpet bombed. Where a zoo like this would be a national scandal but people eat meat raised on factory farms that make Ethiopia’s Lion Zoo look like a nature reserve. Only vegans can talk about animal cruelty from any moral high ground, and I’m not a vegan. Meat tastes too good.

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But a travesty like this zoo is totally unnecessary. Ethiopia is anxious to promote itself as a tourist destination, a friendly, civilized country where Westerners can feel at home. Well, if it wants to do that, it better do something about the Lion Zoo.

Like shut it down.

So to my Harari friends, I’m sorry. You came close to getting a 100% positive series (well, except for my bumbling around Ethiopia’s Somali region) but it was not to be. I understand Ethiopia has bigger priorities than a few animals in a zoo in Addis Ababa, but if you want to make a positive impression on Western visitors, this place has got to go.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Tomoca: the best little coffeehouse in Africa!

Name a cockroach after your lover: Valentine’s Day at the Bronx Zoo

cockroach, cockroachesThe Bronx Zoo has come up with a good way to show that special someone you care–name a giant cockroach after them.

The BBC reports that for ten bucks you can buy the rights to one of the zoo’s 58,000 giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and name it after that special someone who bugs you more than anybody else. The zoo says they sold 1,000 dedications in the first day of the promotion. Perhaps their tagline helped: “Flowers wilt. Chocolates melt. Roaches are forever.”

Indeed they are. They’ve been around since before the dinosaurs and they’ll probably be around after we’re long gone. The Bronx Zoo has some interesting facts about the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, like that they can grow to three inches long and the hiss they make can be as loud as a lawnmower.

They’re nutritious too. Check out our 8 bug-eating videos including two on eating cockroachs. Also check out the far less disgusting but much more educational the video below.

[Photo courtesy user Husond via Wikimedia Commons]