Giraffes, elephants and hippos, oh my!

My wife and I have a travel agreement in place – wherever we travel in a calendar year, she can pick one (and only one) zoo to visit.   It’s not that I don’t like zoos, but usually the idea of dedicating a day to wander around looking at animals isn’t normally on the top of my list.   I love animals, but for me, once I’ve seen a giraffe, I don’t really need to see more giraffes for a while.

On our trip to San Diego, the rule about zoos went out the window.  It’s arguably the finest zoo in the world, and I was just as excited as my wife to visit.  We planned to make a full day of it, so we arrived just as the zoo was opening.  My wife had mapped out all of the stops she wanted to make during the day, and her itinerary had  us taking the aerial cable car to the far end of the zoo to start our exploring.   Not only was it a smart logistical decision, but it gave a great view of the zoo and also of the city of San Diego to the south.

Cable car over the San Diego Zoo

One of the things I noticed immediately about the zoo was that it was designed to give visitors very close views, but not at the expense of space for the animals.   Many times during the day I couldn’t believe how close I could get to an animal, like how close I was to this African lion:

African lion

Sometimes it was the animals that wanted to get close to you.  Although many of the flamingos were busy building protective sand encasings for their eggs, this one flamingo in the picture on the left below only wanted to pose for my camera, following me up and down the fence.  On the right below, I found a duck who thought he was a flamingo and stood on one foot just like his friends:

My wife and I were excited to see the polar bears at the San Diego Zoo.  When we visited the Toronto Zoo a number of years back, the polar bear there slept as far away as he could, so we didn’t really get a chance to watch him.  In San Diego, we were lucky to see one very active polar bear on land and for a few minutes as he swam laps in the pool.

Polar bear

We spent some time watching the elephants in their well designed plot.  Not only did you have great views of them out while they would roam around, but the pens they used to wash and inspect the elephants were able to be viewed as well.

Elephant

One of the main attractions of the San Diego Zoo is their panda exhibit.  We had purchased a special ticket for some “surprise” behind the scenes activities on the day, and one of them ended up being a close (and no lineup!) look at the pandas.  Unfortunately, the ever moody pandas were having a shy day and preferred the air conditioning inside one of their pens to being out in the sun.  One panda was out, but he was taking a nap when we arrived.  We did see him briefly stretch and yawn.  This was the best picture I could get of the recluse.

Panda

Completely the opposite of shy, a cougar provided a dramatic moment.  He was laying down, but suddenly sprang to attention and began hissing as you can see below.  An older man had arrived at the enclosure in a wheelchair, and according to our guide, whenever someone in a wheelchair comes by to view him, he gets aggressive and agitated.  They’ve been trying to desensitize him to this, but no luck yet.  Sure enough, when the man in the wheelchair left, the cougar laid back down.  When the man popped by for a second view, the cougar immediately sprang to action again.

Cougar

We were both super excited to see the giraffes, especially as there had been a baby born just ten days before we arrived.   You can spot her in the photo below if you look closely – she’s sitting on the ground beside the giraffe facing away just to the right of the pole.  At birth, she was already 6′ tall and 136 pounds… that’s a large baby.

Giraffes

Another one of our “surprise” encounters was a chance to feed a giraffe.   Our small group was lucky that at least one giraffe was in snacking mood this afternoon.   This experience ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for both of us.   Here I am feeding a 17′ tall giraffe:

Feeding a giraffe

… and here’s my wife feeding the same hungry giraffe who was more than happy to stretch down to get some more food:

Feeding a giraffe

We got to witness a number of touching moments during our visit – the kind that remind you that what we feel as humans are also felt by animals.   Although the picture isn’t the greatest, this was the most moving moment at the zoo for me.  Here’s a mother gorilla looking into the eyes of her baby as he sleeps peacefully in her arms:

Baby gorilla

On a similar theme, we watched these two hippos interact with the baby nudging along its parent after it woke up.   This brought another of the day’s countless smiles to my face.

Hippos

Keeping with the theme of baby animals, we got to watch a baby orangutan play with his much older aunt.  In the heat of the day, the aunt couldn’t (or wouldn’t) match the child’s energy, but when the trainers entered the far end of the cage signalling snack time, she swooped the little one up and zip-lined in the direction of the food.  If you look really, really close, you will see the little one’s face as he holds on to her under her left arm:

Orangutans

At the Malayan tiger exhibit, a number of kids had camped out to watch the tigers pace mere inches away on the other side of the glass.  It was mesmerizing to watch these animals size up everyone watching.  When one elderly gentleman approached in a walker, one of the tigers focused right in on him and was ready to pounce.  Lucky for all of us the glass was there.

Malayan tiger

The last of our special access visits was a trip behind the scenes to the koala exhibit.  We got to see one of the zoo’s kitchens and walked into a large refrigerator where they keep a variety of eucalyptus for the koalas.   We also got to get up close inside the koala enclosure to get a much better look at the sleepy creatures.  So cute!

Koala

We saw so many other interesting animals during our visit – meerkats, a Malayan tapir (who looks like he’s wearing pyjamas!), guanacos, all kinds of monkeys and so many more.  High expectations can be a double-edged sword sometimes, but in this case, our day at the San Diego Zoo more than lived up to them.

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