Not far from San Diego, African wildlife survives in its almost natural habitat


February 06, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The impatient baby rhino kept butting his lumbering mom in the backside as they made their way to the watering hole. "Hurry up," he seemed to be saying, like any frustrated child whose parent won't move fast enough. The kids sympathized completely -- and couldn't stop laughing.

Nearby, the giraffe family loped along the grass. The zebras grazed peacefully on a hill. There were impala, strange-looking antelopes called wildebeests, elephants and lots of flamingos.

It felt like East Africa -- the broad expanse of dusty plain, so many different animals together, entire herds wandering at will.

We weren't, of course. We were 30 miles north of San Diego, Calif., riding a monorail at a zoo -- albeit one of the most unusual zoos in the nation. The San Diego Wild Animal Park stretches across 2,200 acres and was designed to be "the zoo of the future," a place where animals live together as they would in the wild, a haven for endangered species. In fact, 41 different ones thrive here, many having successfully reproduced. We saw lots of rare and beautiful animals: wild horses, a Sumatran tiger, a pygmy chimp and gazelles among them.

About 3,000 mammals and birds live here and another 500 or more are born (or are hatched) each year. Stop by the Animal Care Center where keepers nurse injured or orphaned young animals. The Wild Animal Park now provides animals to accredited zoos around the world.

The concept clearly works and offers a real treat for adults and kids alike, not to mention a lesson in why it is important to nurture and protect these endangered animals.

At the same time, the Wild Animal Park's sister facility, the world-famous San Diego Zoo -- both are run by the nonprofit Zoological Society of San Diego -- also is making great strides in this area. It is in the process of rebuilding its entire 100-acre complex into "bioclimatic zones" where animals live in natural habitats with other animals and plants from the same part of the world.

We stopped by the newest habitat, Gorilla Tropics -- five times the size of the old exhibit -- and found ourselves in the middle of a 2.5-acre African rain forest, complete with six gorillas, waterfalls, thousands of plants and four aviaries full of African birds -- even jungle sounds transmitted through a sophisticated compact disc system.

Melanie, who is nearly 3, loved the Children's Zoo, where the exhibits are scaled to preschooler size. Even though the kids generally aren't enthusiastic about tours, they thoroughly enjoyed the double-decker bus ride through the zoo, thanks to a lively tour guide who kept them looking -- and listening -- for an amazing 40 minutes. Did you know baby impalas can run 45 mph 24 hours after birth?

(If you're going to both zoos, consider buying the combined ticket. At $24 for adults and $13 for kids, it's a significant savings. Call the San Diego Zoo at [619] 231-1415; the Wild Animal Park at [619] 738-5022.)

San Diego might well be the best place in the country to talk to the animals. That goes for whales, sharks and dolphins, too. To meet them -- face to face -- head to Sea World California. Your kids can feed the dolphins slimy fish or walk through Shark Encounter, an amazing underwater viewing tube with sharks swimming all around you in a 400,000-gallon tank. They can meet not only Shamu the Killer Whale but Baby Shamu as well in the much-publicized show. (Get to the outdoor arenas early for the ++ animal shows. On busy days, they fill up at least a half hour ahead.)

Sea World can even be a spot for a conservation lesson: You'll see some of the Alaska sea otters that were rescued from the 1989 Prince William Sound oil spill in Alaska. (Adults, $27.95; children 3-11, $19.95. Call Sea World at [619] 226-3901.)

San Diego is a great place to be introduced to another sort -- that lived by sailors and Marines. Nearly 140,000 are based here on land and a variety of ships: aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers.

An aircraft carrier is an amazing place, a floating city where more than 5,000 men (and, soon, women) work and live. A call to the USS Kitty Hawk -- (619) 545-5669 -- or the USS Constellation -- (619) 545-2427 -- is all you need to schedule a free tour, as long as they're in port.

We visited the officers' mess (peanut butter and jelly is always available) and the ship's Combat Directions Center, where huge video display terminals track air and sea traffic, crucial during a battle.

Matt, who is nearly 10, was duly impressed. "Just like a big video game," he said. He looked ready to enlist.

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