Park outside San Diego preserves 250 wild species

ON SAFARI IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

January 06, 1991|By Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty

There is a school for all the wild animals of the field and forest, veldt and savanna, water hole and river bottom.

The school is the San Diego Wild Animal Park in the hills east of Escondido, Calif., where 250 animal species, 47 of them endangered, roam over 1,800 spacious acres in the sunny, dry San Pasqual Valley.

The school is for the birds -- and for the tigers, gorillaswildebeests and rhinos. And at this school, the animals are the teachers and the humans the students.

Since 1970, when the Wild Animal Park was proposed as aadjunct to the San Diego Zoo, a "breeding farm" for endangered animals, the WAP's mission has grown to encompass public education and entertainment as well as species preservation.

According to spokesman Tom Hanscom, WAP's philosophevolved over time. "First we wanted to breed exotic animals," he says. "Then, realizing the cost of maintaining such a facility, we decided to design public access to the park. And then, to meld those two concepts, we've concentrated heavily on the educational opportunities available to the general public."

At the park, visitors thrill to their first sight of white-beardegnus, Uganda giraffes, Roosevelt's gazelles and Kenya impalas running free over the hills. On hot afternoons, rhinos and cape buffaloes wallow in cool, delicious mudholes in plain view of monorail riders. With every encounter comes a quiet reminder: Saving the animals matters.

For youngsters through high school age, summer classes offehands-on learning. Students join teachers, staff biologists and keepers to pet, feed, count, look at and listen to their fellow creatures. But most family activities are scheduled throughout the year.

In addition to regular bird and elephant shows and small exhibitin Nairobi Village, and the larger enclosures viewable from the Wgasa Bush Line Monorail and along the Kilimanjaro Walking Trail, there are special events, behind-the-scenes tours and "species presentations" led by biologists and keepers.

Perhaps the most exciting are the photo caravans -- mini-safarifor five to 10 people, in an open truck bumping along on dirt roads within the large animal enclosures. A fantasy come true for animal lovers and photographers ages 12 and up, the caravans are an opportunity to get close and friendly with large exotic animals.

The short safari (about 105 minutes) drives through two of thpark's five large habitats; the long safari (3 1/2 hours) visits four -- the East African and South African, and the Asian Plains and Asian Waterhole, 320 acres in all. At various spots guides stop to talk about the animals and hand out carrots and apples.

"The caravans are a little taste of Africa," says Larry Killmar, thcurator of mammals. "They're not so rugged or stressful as a safari in Africa, but they get the people down close."

Right! One minute you're adjusting your sunglasses, the nexyou're looking up to see three tons of beady-eyed rhino barreling up to the truck. Then the rhino puts on the brakes and thrusts that huge wrinkled face and rubbery lips right next to yours. Yech -- kissed by a rhino! But merely hand over an apple and grab your camera. This is a chance to shoot wildlife photos from a distance of two feet.

Bring your telephoto lens for close-ups of the previous spring'crop of shy babies. "April to August is the heavy calving season," says Mr. Killmar, who has been with the park since it opened in 1972. "We can have as many as eight births in a day -- they happen right out there in the exhibits."

While feeding fruit to rhinos seems contradictory in a supposedlnatural habitat, zoo keepers have learned that offering treats to unpredictable, easily spooked Indian rhinos is the safest way to manage these 6,000-pound hulks.

Each caravan has its own surprises, of course. On a recenouting, Mr. Hanscom spotted a newly laid ostrich egg lying on the muddy river bank. Eggs are a favorite target for hawks, so he stopped to collect it. The visitors handed it around and agreed it felt large and very heavy. Just right for an omelet, someone commented.

A good place to start a day at the WAP is on the Wgasa BusLine. The monorail runs in a loop around the hills above the large habitats, providing an overview of the 2,500 animals that live behind camouflaged fencing, called inrigging. The inrigging isn't very tall, but there's a large overhang at the top. As tour guide Becky Boomer explained, "The animals get up next to the fence and look up. When they see something over their heads, they think they can't jump out."

During the ride, keep an eye peeled for golden eagles circlinoverhead. They are a few of the wild birds that have taken up residence in the surrounding hills and are getting fat on the gophers and mice that live off snitched animal feed.

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