The San Diego Zoo is a zoo in Balboa Park, San Diego, California housing over 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies. It is also one of the few zoos in the world that houses the giant panda.
It is privately operated by the nonprofit Zoological Society of San Diego on 100 acres (40 ha) of parkland leased from the City of San Diego, and ownership of all animals, equipment and other assets rests with the City of San Diego. The San Diego Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the American Association of Museums (AAM), and a member of the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego? I believe I’ll build one.”
The San Diego Zoo grew out of exotic animal exhibitions abandoned after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth founded the Zoological Society of San Diego, meeting October 2, 1916, which initially followed precedents set by the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo. He served as president of the society until 1941. A permanent tract of land in Balboa Park was set aside in August 1921; on the advice of the city attorney, it was agreed that the city would own all the animals and the zoo would manage them. The zoo began to move in the following year. In addition to the animals from the Exposition, the zoo acquired a menagerie from the defunct Wonderland Amusement Park. Ellen Browning Scripps financed a fence around the zoo so that it could begin charging an entrance fee to offset costs. The publication ZooNooz commenced in early 1925.
Animal collector Frank Buck went to work as director for the San Diego Zoo on June 13, 1923, signed to a three-year contract by Wegeforth. William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, had recommended Buck for the job. But Buck quickly clashed with the strong-willed Wegeforth and left the zoo after three months to return to animal collecting.
After several other equally short-lived zoo directors, Wegeforth appointed the zoo’s bookkeeper, Belle Benchley, to the position of executive secretary, in effect zoo director; she was given the actual title of zoo director a few years later. She served as zoo director from 1925 until 1953. For most of that time she was the only female zoo director in the world. She was succeeded as director by Dr. Charles Schroeder.
The San Diego Zoo was a pioneer in building “cageless” exhibits. Wegeforth was determined to create moated exhibits from the start, and the first lion area at the San Diego Zoo without enclosing wires opened in 1922.
Until the 1960s, admission for children under 16 was free regardless of whether they were accompanied by a paying adult.
The zoo’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) was founded in 1975 at the urging of Kurt Benirschke, who became its first director. CRES was renamed the division of Conservation and Research for Endangered Species in 2005 to better reflect its mission. In 2009 CRES was significantly expanded to become the Institute for Conservation Research.
An orangutan named Ken Allen was reported in several newspapers in the summer of 1985 for repeatedly escaping from the supposedly escape-proof orangutan enclosure.
The world’s only albino koala in a zoological facility was born September 1, 1997, at the San Diego Zoo and was named Onya-Birri, which means “ghost boy” in an Australian Aboriginal language. The San Diego Zoo has the largest number of koalas outside of Australia.
The zoo offers a guided tour bus that traverses 75% of the park. There is an overhead gondola lift called the Skyfari, providing an aerial view of the zoo. The Skyfari was built in 1969 by the Von Roll tramway company of Bern, Switzerland. The San Diego Zoo Skyfari is a Von Roll type 101.
Exhibits are often designed around a particular habitat. The same exhibit features many different animals that can be found side-by-side in the wild, along with native plant life. Exhibits range from an African rain forest (featuring gorillas) to the Arctic taiga and tundra in the summertime (featuring polar bears). Some of the largest free-flight aviaries in existence are here. Many exhibits are “natural” with invisible wires and darkened blinds (to view birds), and pools and open-air moats (for large mammals).
The San Diego Zoo also operates the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which displays animals in a more expansive setting than at the Zoo. Animals are regularly exchanged between the two locations, as well as between San Diego Zoo and other zoos around the world, usually in accordance with Species Survival Plan recommendations.
The cool, sunny maritime climate is well suited to many plants and animals. Besides an extensive collection of birds, reptiles, and mammals, it also maintains its grounds as an arboretum, with a rare plant collection. As part of its gardening effort, it raises some rare animal foods. For example, the zoo raises 40 varieties of bamboo for the pandas on long-term loan from China, and it maintains 18 varieties of eucalyptus trees to feed its koalas.
Keepers and most other employees at the San Diego Zoo are members of Teamsters Union Local 481.
Monkey Trails and Forest Tales
Monkey Trails showcases monkeys and other animals from the rainforests of Asia and Africa. Opened in 2005, it replaced an older exhibit known as the Monkey Yard. Monkey Trails is home primarily to monkeys such as guenons, mangabeys, and mandrills, but it also showcases many other species of animals, such as yellow-backed duikers. Pygmy hippos, slender-snouted crocodiles, and many species of turtles and fish can be seen in a series of water/land exhibits all with underwater viewing areas. In smaller exhibits are many reptiles and amphibians such as pancake tortoises, and many species of arthropods such as Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Monkey Trails utilizes a new method of displaying arboreal animals—by climbing up an elevated walkway throughout the exhibit. Some of the horticultural highlights in Monkey Trails include a ficus tree, cycads, and a bog garden.
The Owens Rain Forest Aviary contains about 200 tropical birds representing 45 species. Lories, kingfishers, Bali mynahs, jacanas, woodpeckers, and argus pheasants can all be seen here.
The Scripps Aviary is home to many colorful birds such as the amethyst starling, tinkerbirds, and the sociable weaver.
As of July 2011, the San Diego Zoo is one of four zoos in the U.S. which have giant pandas on display, and is the most successful in terms of panda reproduction. The first two giant panda cubs in U.S. history to have been born in the U.S. and survive into adulthood, Hua Mei (female, born to Bai Yun and Shi Shi) and Mei Sheng (male, born to Bai Yun and Gao Gao), were born at the San Diego Zoo, in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Since then, three more giant panda cubs, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen (both females), and Yun Zi (male), have been born to the resident giant panda parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao. All these American-born cubs except Yun Zi have been sent back to China to participate in the breeding program there. These giant pandas are viewable from a web based exhibit called the San Diego Zoo panda cam. A sixth cub, Xaio Liwu (meaning “little gift”), was born on July 29th, 2012 and was first let outside for visitors to see on January 9, 2013. In addition to being able to view this rare animal species, the nearby Giant Panda Discovery Center has interactive exhibits that let the visitor experience first hand what the animals smell and sound like. Since the opening of Panda Trek there are now Sichuan takins, a red panda, Mangshan pitvipers, and an exhibit comparing several types of bamboo.
Polar Bear Plunge
Polar Bear Plunge, which opened in 1996 and was renovated in March 2010, houses over 30 species representing the Arctic. The main animals in the area are the three polar bears, named Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq. More animals that make their home in Polar Bear Plunge are the reindeer or caribou, the Arctic fox, and the raccoon. An underwater viewing area is available to observe the polar bears swimming in their 130,000-US-gallon (490,000 l) pool. Farther down the path lies the arctic aviary, home to the diving ducks including buffleheads, harlequin ducks, the smews, and long-tailed ducks. The aviary houses more than 25 species of duck. Some of the horticultural highlights include giant redwood trees, many different pine trees, and manzanita.
Based upon the real Ituri Forest in Africa, this exhibit houses different animal species from the forests of Africa. Animals such as Allen’s swamp monkeys, lesser spot-nosed guenons, spotted-necked otters, a red river hog, and an African forest buffalo can be found coexisting within the exhibit. One of the prominent species of the African exhibit is the okapis grazing from the trees. These relatives of the giraffe are rarely seen in zoos and are scarcely witnessed in the wild. Some of Ituri Forest’s most prominent inhabitants exist within the hippo exhibit, which includes an underwater viewing area and several species of exotic fish, such as tilapia. One can also see the colorful turacos. In the forest, over 30 species of birds reside, including the Congo peafowl. Some of the horticultural highlights include banana trees, sausage trees, yellow trumpet trees, and bamboo.
This exhibit opened on May 26, 2009 in the area once known as Hoof and Horn Mesa. The main feature of the exhibit is the 2.5-acre (10,000 m2) elephant habitat—more than three times the size of the Zoo’s former elephant exhibit, in what used to be Elephant Mesa (now the “Urban Jungle”). The herd includes one male (Ranchipur) and four females (Tembo, Devi, Sumithi, Mary) and blends the Zoo’s herd of one African and two Asian elephants with the Wild Animal Park’s four Asian Elephants. Elephant Odyssey also features a glimpse of the past with the Fossil Portal and life-size statues of ancient creatures of Southern California next to the exhibits of their modern-day counterparts. The ancient life represented include the Columbian mammoth, the saber-tooth cat, the American lion, the Daggett’s eagle, and the giant ground sloth. Elephant Odyssey’s other animal exhibits include African lions, jaguars, Baird’s Tapirs, guanacos, capybaras, Kirk’s dik-diks, secretary birds, dung beetles, water beetles, desert tarantulas, toads, newts, turtles, frogs, dromedary camels, pronghorn, horses, burros, llamas, rattlesnakes, and the California condor.
Simulating the rainforests of central Africa and opened in 1991, Gorilla Tropics has an 8,000-square-foot (740 m2) enclosure for the eponymous species. The exhibit has waterfalls, a meadow, and tropical plants such as allspice, coral trees, and African tulip trees, as well as several species of bamboo. Guests can view the Western Gorillas from a viewing window, across a waterfall, and across a creek.
This exhibit opened in 2003 and houses Bornean orangutans and siamangs in an 8,400-square-foot (780 m2) exhibit, which is flanked by a 110-foot (34 m) glass viewing window. The exhibit provides sway poles and artificial trees for the primates to swing on and a fake termite mound for them to fish condiments out of. The viewing area is designed to resemble the mulch-lined exhibit side of the viewing window by having rubber mulch and miniature sway poles for kids. Some plant species in the exhibit are toog trees, carrotwood trees, and markhamia trees.
The zoo has bred and maintained bonobos since 1960.
Sun Bear Forest
This $3.5 million exhibit opened in 1989 and exhibits Malayan sun bears and silvery lutung monkeys. One end of the 1.5-acre (0.61 ha) complex houses lion-tailed macaques in a grassy exhibit with a stream and climbing ropes. The oblong sun bear exhibit straddles the path along the rest of the complex, and a couple of small aviaries house fifteen species of birds, including fairy bluebird and fruit doves. A large glass-covered exhibit with artificial vines is designed for crested gibbons.
Tiger River, located in a sloping canyon, opened in 1988 and houses Malayan tigers. From the top of the canyon, the path first goes through a pavilion with underwater viewing of crocodilians and other aquatic reptiles. It proceeds to another pavilion, this time flanked by the Marsh Aviary, with white-collared kingfishers and storks, and a fishing cat exhibit. Farther down the canyon are a Malayan tapir exhibit and the 1⁄4-acre (0.10 ha) tiger habitat, which has a hillside stream, waterfall, and glass viewing window.
A new Australian Outback area is scheduled to open in early 2013 with improved koala exhibits, a care center with floor-to-ceiling windows for guests to see keepers taking care of the koalas, and later on exhibits for Tasmanian devils and Australian birds.
Two 14-week-old Clouded Leopard brothers arrived at the zoo in December 2012.
The zoo is active in conservation and species-preservation efforts. Its Institute for Conservation Research (formerly the Center for the Reproduction for Endangered Species) raises California Condors, giant pandas, tigers, African Black Rhinos, and a large number of other endangered species. Many species are bred in captivity for release into their native habitats where appropriate. It employs numerous professional geneticists, cytologists, and veterinarians and maintains a cryopreservation facility for rare sperm and eggs called the frozen zoo.
Zoo Corps is a volunteer program at the San Diego Zoo that enlists high school students to teach guests at the zoo about the animals they are seeing and their place in the ecosystem. It enrolls students between 13 and 17 years of age. The goals are to promote public education about animals and conservation, and to help the students develop their ability to speak in public. The program runs year round in two sessions, one from May through November and one from January through May. Members of the Zoo Corps are expected to volunteer at least once a month.
The program utilizes a series of “Kits”, which are set on tables throughout the Zoo. The kits contain objects that can be used to explain why an animal is endangered or to shed light on the animal’s lifestyle.Some of the kits are: Conservation Kit, Endangered Species Kit, Behavioral Enrichment Kit, and Animal Diet Kit.
In popular culture
- The San Diego Zoo was the filming location for the long-running documentary television series Zoorama.
- The San Diego Zoo, along with the St. Louis Zoo, were frequently mentioned in the Yogi Bear series of media as possible destinations Ranger Smith may ship Yogi to if he caused too much trouble at Jellystone Park. In the 1964 film Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!, Yogi was actually shipped to the San Diego Zoo, and his escape from being shipped off forms the plot of the film.
- In addition to its normal publicity efforts, and web page, the zoo also produced a short TV program for a number of years with Joan Embery. Joan Embery brought various animals to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson between 1971 and 1987, and more recently (between 1993 and 2008) The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The zoo loaned the animals.
- The zoo was featured prominently in the 2004 movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, though filming was done at the old Los Angeles Zoo, not at the San Diego Zoo.
- In the DreamWorks feature film Madagascar, the animals from Central Park Zoo in New York City think they are in the San Diego Zoo when they land in Madagascar: “White, sandy beaches; cleverly simulated natural environment; wide-open enclosures. I’m telling you, this could be the San Diego Zoo. Complete with fake rocks.” In the sequel Madagascar 2, they also guess that they crash-landed in San Diego when they see a reservation in Africa with a beautiful lake and lots of animals.
- The Zoo is featured in the 1965 film Scavenger Hunt, in which each of the five teams in a scavenger hunt steals an ostrich from the Zoo. (Actual ostriches were not used.)
- The Beach Boys‘ 1966 album Pet Sounds has a cover and various album photography from the San Diego Zoo.
- The 6ths first album Wasps’ Nests includes a song called “San Diego Zoo”, which features comprehensive directions on how to get to the zoo.
- The zoo is talked about, though not actually shown, in the film The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
- The first YouTube video, Me at the zoo was shot in San Diego Zoo and was uploaded to it on, April 23, 2005, by the co-creator, Jawed Karim. It can still be viewed on YouTube.
- A regular visitor was acclaimed director and animator Chuck Jones, who often drew the animals at this zoo.
- On the episode “Mothers and Daughters” of season 7 of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Kardashian family attends the San Diego Zoo with grandmother MJ. The visit highlights the “behind the scenes” and animal feeding tours that the zoo also provides for the public at a higher fee.