Diego Zoo, stare down giraffes, breakfast with pandas
youngest giraffe at the San Diego Zoo, Penelope,
gets a nudge and a little love from one of the other
inhabitants in their Urban Jungle exhibit September
DIEGO — You and I both know where to find an endless
supply of watchable animals — felines, canines,
reptiles, eating, sleeping, swinging, swatting, spooning.
It’s hard to look away. Time flies by.
you say with a sigh. "The Internet is ruining
But I’m talking about the San Diego Zoo, an actual
physical place that might not be a waste of time.
without benefit of mouse, monitor or smartphone, you can
lock gazes with a viper, smell elephant scat and coo at an
adorable giant panda — until you hear the menacing
crunch of that 230-pound bear’s sturdy teeth, snapping
and shredding an inch-thick bamboo stalk.
was Bai Yun, a 22-year-old mother of six, tearing into
breakfast while I watched and winced one morning last
though most of its residents are captive non-natives, the
zoo is an iconic Southern California creation all the
same, with more than 3,700 animals from 650 species,
surrounded by 70,000 plant species and ogled by 3.5
million visitors last year.
it weren’t for that pesky St. Louis Zoo (3,519,926
visitors last year), San Diego’s would be the
most-visited facility of its kind in North America. The
zoo’s leaders might prefer to emphasize its role in
helping bring back pandas, California condors and other
threatened species, but in simple gawk-and-snap terms,
this territory has been a 100-acre photo op since before
Kodachrome was born. In the 1930s, the zoo veterinarian
used to roam the grounds between chores with a Graflex
camera, then sell the prints at the front gate. (That vet,
Charles Schroeder, went on to run the place from the 1950s
into the 1970s.)
Diego is my default zoo. Just as my daughter counts on
seeing Reggie the alligator on her way into the L.A. Zoo
(1,100 animals; about 1.5 million visitors yearly), I grew
up with the Skyfari buckets dangling above and pink
flamingos squabbling at the entrance. In the Children’s
Zoo, I rode the Galapagos tortoises, and a goat once peed
were no goats on this trip, but in the several days that
L.A. Times photographer Mark Boster and I spent roaming
the grounds, there was plenty of sensory stimulation: One
afternoon, passing the California condors, I glimpsed a
tuft of unexpected fur on the rocks — a fresh spread of
dead rabbits and rats, laid out by the keepers, for the
scavengers’ brunch. At the Backstage Pass program, I got
slimed by rhino spittle, howled in harmony with an arctic
wolf whose fur was as white as snow and fed flamingos
using one of those red plastic cups you used to misplace
at frat parties.
highly recommend the flamingo feeding. You sit on a bench
with cup in hand, and the long-necked, sharp-beaked birds
come at you like a squadron of pink Concordes. As they
snap up the snack pellets, you feel their beaks rattling
in your cup.
next morning in the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback area
— a major updating of the zoo’s Australian collections
that opened in May — we looked on while keeper Kate
Tooker gave the female koalas their eucalyptus fixes, then
paused to cuddle a wallaby. In the next enclosure, keeper
Lindsay King whispered sweet nothings to a male koala
while it paced a few feet on a branch, climbed a few steps
up a trunk, then settled in to munch leaves.
a koala, which sleeps about 16 hours of every 24, this was
whirlwind activity. And in this new setup, they’re
easier to see — closer to visitors, less cloaked by
course, most zoo visitors will also want to pay visits to
the lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes, and so did we.
(One of the giraffes stared me down for so long I thought
it might demand to see my ID.) But I set aside more time
for my old friends the tortoises, which have been part of
the zoo since arriving from the Galapagos in 1928.
looked like a mistake at first: Beyond the boulders
upfront, I saw no sign of life in their enclosure. Then a
boulder budged and a scaly, dark-eyed, primordial face
emerged. Then another.
I looked over those faces, keeper Jonny Carlson brought me
up to date. In 1972, keepers stopped letting kids climb
aboard. Nine of the zoo’s original tortoises are still
here, plus one that arrived in the ‘30s. They bask in
the sun to warm their cold blood, snap up greens from
their keepers and — as I witnessed — occasionally
bloody each other’s noses in lumbering battles for
dominance. In other words, they’re no better than
as in Congress, their tenure is closely tracked — in
this case by the numbers painted on their shells. That’s
how we know No. 5, nicknamed "Speed," which
weighs close to 600 pounds. He arrived in 1933. He was
estimated to be in his 60s then, so he’s near 140 now,
the oldest animal in the zoo.
a good chance that Speed’s mother and father were
lumbering around on one of the Galapagos islands in 1835
when a man with a notebook showed up and started tapping
on tortoise shells. The man even sat on a few, finding it
"very difficult to keep my balance." Then he
went home to England with his notebooks and wrote
"The Origin of Species."
right: By the tortoise calendar, you and I are just one
generation removed from Charles Darwin.
AND DON’TS WHEN YOU’RE VISITING THE SAN DIEGO ZOO
at San Diego Zoo, consider these activities.
or gourmet food options. Surprising places to spend the
night. And a way to get closer to the animals.
do the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego; (619)
set aside a day. Admission costs $44 for adults, $34 for
children ages 3-11. (Kids are admitted free in October.)
Fall hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. From Dec. 13-Jan. 5, hours
are 9 a.m.-8 p.m., except Dec. 24, which is a 9-to-5 day.
an insider’s view of the animals, do spend $99 for
admission that includes a Backstage Pass ((619) 718-3000, http://bit.ly/dvVHCJ).
For that, you step behind the scenes for 90 minutes for
close encounters (aka photo ops) with several zoo animals
— a chance to feed flamingos and a rhino, for instance,
meet a cheetah or see an arctic wolf from just a few feet
bring your dog — or any pet — into the zoo. Rules
forbid it. Service dogs, however, are permitted in most
treat yourself to lunch at Albert’s Restaurant ((619)
which is not a snack shack but a genuine restaurant in the
middle of the zoo with "world cuisine" and a
pleasant dining room and patio overlooking a waterfall.
Named for a beloved gorilla, now departed. Lunch main
try the Prado at Balboa Park (1549 El Prado, Balboa Park;
(619) 557-9441, www.cohnrestaurants.com).
The park’s flagship restaurant is a few steps from the
zoo’s main walkway. It has an eclectic interior design
and a big, shaded patio. Lunch and dinner. Dinner main
sell short the rest of Balboa Park (Visitors Center, 1549
El Prado; (619) 239-0512, www.balboapark.org).
Besides the zoo, its 1,200 acres include 15 museums, the
Old Globe and other theaters, gardens, studios, galleries,
groves, trails, lawns, lawn bowling, golf, disc golf and
perhaps the most scenic lily pond in California. If you
have a day to spend, the best deal might be the Passport
to Balboa Park, a Passport/Zoo combo, or a
Stay-for-the-Day Pass. Each allows admission to multiple
attractions at a discount. Info: www.balboapark.org/parkpass
consider the Balboa Park Inn (3402 Park Blvd.; (619)
if you want to walk to the zoo or you want a kitchen or
you’re determined to avoid chain motels. The inn has 26
rooms (10 with kitchens) in four buildings. The exterior
is suburban Spanish colonial; the interiors are homespun,
eclectic, a different theme for every room. Free breakfast
and Wi-Fi. Units rent for $99 to $249 a night. Drawback:
Reservation policies are strict; it requires more money
upfront than many other hotels.
try a slice from Pizzeria Luigi (2121 El Cajon Blvd.;
(619) 294-9417, www.pizzerialuigi.com).
There’s nothing fancy about the dining room — in fact,
there’s a bit of a tattoo parlor vibe — but the pies
(including several vegetarian options) are tasty. Luigi
has an older location (same atmosphere) at 1137 25th St.
in the Golden Hill neighborhood, also handy to Balboa
Park. Most pizzas $15-$22; most slices, $2.75.
you’re up for playful retro lodgings, check out the
LaFayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows (2223 El Cajon
Blvd.; (619) 296-2101, www.lafayettehotelsd.com),
which dates to 1946. Beyond its facade of red bricks and
white pillars, there’s a lobby full of vintage details
and a big swimming pool. Also low prices. Units range from
modest hotel rooms to three-bedroom suites that are
essentially vacation rentals. Non-suite rooms typically
eat at American Voodoo (4655 Park Blvd.; (619) 255-8504, http://on.fb.me/19SP4Ly).
This snug (capacity: 37) New Orleans-style spot opened in
September along restaurant row in University Heights.
Dinner entrees about $15-$26.
consider Flavors of East Africa (2322 El Cajon Blvd.;
(619) 955-8778, www.flavorsofeastafrica.com).
Maybe you didn’t come to San Diego for Kenyan cuisine,
but these dishes are good. Many vegan options. Great
value: Sambusas (meat and other ingredients in a
triangular dough pocket) for as little as 99 cents each.
Lunch and dinner. Dinner main dishes: $12-$19.
a French feel in the East Village, do stop at Cafe Chloe
(721 9th Ave.; (619) 232-3242, www.cafechloe.com),
a small, stylish spot with a curving bar and mostly
two-top tables. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner main
you’re traveling without kids, do consider Keating House
(2331 2nd Ave.; (619) 239-8585, www.keatinghouse.com).
This quiet Victorian B&B in the Bankers Hill
neighborhood has a limit of two guests per room, but it
has great prices. A pleasantly lived-in feel. Rates
$119-$169. Not to be confused with the very contemporary
Keating Hotel ((www.thekeating.com)
the night is mild, do get dinner on the patio at Buona
Forchetta (3001 Beech St.; (619) 381-4844, www.buonaforchettasd.com).
This young South Park neighborhood restaurant’s menu is
pizzas, pastas and salads, but do not be fooled: The
sophisticated preparation and setting make it special.
Opened in early 2013. Dinner main dishes $10-$15.
take in the downtown scene while dining, do try Searsucker
(611 5th Ave.; (619) 233-7327, www.searsucker.com),
a cavernous restaurant serving "new American
classic" food in the night-life-rich Gaslamp Quarter.
The boss is Brian Malarkey, probably San Diego’s best
known chef. It’s quieter at lunch, when I had a seared
albacore tuna sandwich for $11. Most dinners $22-$48.
a late-night beer and burrito near downtown? Do remember
the Waterfront (2044 Kettner Blvd.; (619) 232-9656, www.waterfrontbarandgrill.com),
an old-school bar and grill in Little Italy that claims to
be the city’s oldest tavern. The quarters are close; the
clientele is all over the map; the burgers are
$6.95-$12.95. DJs often on Fridays and Saturdays.
a great bay-and-skyline view and very good food, do have a
drink or dinner at C Level/Island Prime (880 Harbor Island
Drive; (619) 298-6802, www.cohnrestaurants.com).
In this joined-at-the-hip pair of restaurants on Harbor
Island, C Level is more casual with a big patio, a
no-reservation policy, a menu with Mexican and Asian
accents and dinner entrees about $15-$29. Island Prime is
fancier, pricier, dinner-only, menu tilted toward surf and
turf, with entrees about $22-$52.
lodging on the water, do consider the Kona Kai Resort
(1551 Shelter Island Drive; (619) 221-8000, www.resortkonakai.com),
a 129-room marina resort hotel that has been upgrading
since new owners stepped in in late 2012. Be sure to ask
about construction noise, however. Between now and July,
the hotel is adding 41 rooms, a tiki bar and a pool.
Non-suite rooms for two are $139-$309.
see yet more animals in wide-open spaces, head for the San
Diego Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Road,
Escondido; (760) 747-8702, www.sdzsafaripark.org).
The park is the zoo’s sibling, a reserve amid rolling
hills where animals have room to roam in conditions close
to those of southern Africa. Attractions include a cheetah
run and zip line. Admission $44 and up for adults.
DIEGO ZOO: ITS HISTORY AND SOME FUN FACTS
Worried about what would become of the animals in the 1915
Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, Harry M.
Wegeforth founds the San Diego Zoological Society.
Grand opening in Balboa Park. Adult admission is 10 cents.
First koalas, kangaroos, emus, wombats and dingoes arrive
First Galapagos tortoises arrive.
First gorillas arrive from Africa: Mbongo and N’gagi,
later to be celebrated by bronze busts near the entrance.
Caught in a Depression-era tax dispute, the property and
animals are put up for auction but attract no bidders. Zoo
veterinarian Charles Schroeder stretches the budget by
feeding carnivores horse meat.
Schroeder, a forceful advocate for moats instead of cages,
becomes zoo director.
SeaWorld, a for-profit venture, opens on San Diego’s
Mission Bay, kicking off long-standing competition with
Joan Embery, a 21-year-old Children’s Zoo attendant, is
chosen as Miss Zoofari, a goodwill ambassador who makes
appearances with animals.
Embery, joined by Carol the painting elephant, appears
Nov. 4 as a guest of Johnny Carson on "The Tonight
Show." During the next 38 years, through the Carson
and Leno eras, Embery is invited more than 40 times.
The Zoological Society opens the Wild Animal Park, a
1,800-acre sibling of the zoo, in northern San Diego
County. It’s now known as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Fifteen years after the arrival of Chinese giant pandas at
the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the San Diego Zoo
receives pandas Basi and Yuan Yuan on short-term loan from
Giant pandas Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrive from China on
Bai Yun gives birth to Hua Mei.
The first YouTube video, "Me at the Zoo," is
shot in the elephant area and uploaded by YouTube
co-creator Jawed Karim.
On July 29, Bai Yun gives birth to her sixth cub, Xiao Li
Wu. Combined zoo and Safari Park attendance reaches 5
million. SeaWorld: 4.4 million.
"Mister Zoo: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Charles
Schroeder," by Douglas G. Myers with Lynda Rutledge
Stephenson; Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums; www.sandiegozoo.org;
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services