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Lions, Apes, Tigers, and Bears ...
  San Diego Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

sandiego_flamingo2.jpg I used to love zoos. Then I got older and wiser and thought it was cruel to hold an animal captive for my enjoyment. Now, I'm thinking, modern and conscientious zoos are no longer there just to amuse the public.

The San Diego Zoo, forever changing and growing with the times, is a zoo of the future. Its Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species has gained international fame for its efforts to save threatened animals from extinction. An ongoing project, for example, involves storing sperm, ova and other cells of the endangered animal in the " Frozen Zoo," a cryogenic freezer which operates both as a sperm bank and as a library for research geneticists.

Its Zoological Society, the largest zoo organization in the world, is committed to conservation, along with education and recreation. The society's behind the scenes lectures, tours, and workshops for adults are frequent and informative. There are also orientation seminars for teachers and complimentary education programs for students.

Highlights for the millions of visitors to the Zoo include a delightful Children's Zoo where children can touch and feel their furry and feathered friends; a narrated guided bus tour that points out interesting facts about the animals; natural behavior animal shows, moving sidewalks that carry you to different levels and an aerial tram that transports you over the tree tops. Speaking of tree tops, the San Diego Zoo is acclaimed for its collection of orchids, palm trees and aloes.

I remember my first visit to the San Diego Zoo as if it were yesterday. We were parked on a side street, bedded down for the night in the back of our pickup, just blocks from the Zoo. It was quiet and still, when suddenly a lion roared. A spine-tingling powerful sound, it shattered the silence like a thunder clap and scenes of jungles, Tarzan and mystery filled my sleepy head. It was such a lion's roar that inspired Dr. Harry Wegeforth, a San Diego physician, when he and his brother Paul drove by the circus-like cages at the Panama California Exposition at Balboa Park back in 1916.

In 1916 San Diego didn't have a zoo. Wegeforth, hearing the kingly roar, wished that it did, and said, half-jokingly, " I think I'll start one."

And so he did. And it grew, from the small collection of wildlife he rescued from the exposition, to today's 100 acres of mostly barless grottos, mesas and canyons, teeming with over 6,500 exotic plants and more than 4,239 animals.

Our fascination with the animal kingdom is not new. History tells us the Chinese and Egyptians captured wild beasts for hunting and menageries; and we all know that the Romans pitted animals and slaves against one another in horrific gladiator battles. The first real zoo, however, was built in France, by Louis XIV. The cages were small and dirty, diet was hardly nutritious -- the animals died and were simply replaced from the bounteous wilderness. A more humane zoo was built in Stellingen, near Hamburgin, Germany, at the turn of the century. Many of the older enclosures at the San Diego Zoo were fashioned after those at Stellingen. Today, they are fashioned after the animals' native land. For example, gorillas, home in the new and innovative Gorilla Tropics, an exhibit surrounded with 144 stereo speakers and fruit trees, listen to sounds that were recorded on location in their African environment and help themselves to the figs and bananas growing on a hillside. The site for the playful bonobos or pygmy chimps is a replica of a rain forest with waterfalls and a twisted palm tree playground where these agile and acrobatic chimps can swing and leap and somersault.

At the Tiger River site, tigers live on a hill complete with two waterfalls, pool, rocks and logs for climbing, grassy mesas and bamboo thickets.

Wings of Australasia showcases the Zoo's rarest, most delicate, most colorful birds in the most natural state possible. Plants within the enclosures are native to the birds' habitats. Not only do they encourage courtship and nesting habits, they serve as food supplements, by bearing fruit, seeds and berries the birds would naturally eat in the wild.

The San Diego Zoo is famous for its rare and exotic species, such as the koalas and the kiwis and the wild Przewalski's horses, but its the regular lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, bears representing over 800 species that children love the best.

Eight hundred may not seem like much, considering the world has over one million species; however, even if we were able to travel to the four corners of earth, it's unlikely we'd live long enough to see eight hundred species.

Some might say so what. And perhaps zoos aren't the answer, but if we don't study and learn about how and why all life functions, we're never going to gain tolerance and appreciation for the amazing world we live in. More importantly, while it's true that the adrenaline rush of a kill is never felt by the well-fed tigers in a zoo, it is also true that many animals of today will not survive without our involvement and consideration.

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