There are exceptions—the reptile area, a secluded compound of outdoor pits and indoor glass-fronted cages is a marvelous collection and exhibit—but generally there are too many displays in San Diego and they are too crowded. ( San Diego is a relatively small zoo—only 100 acres.) A magnificent botanical display brightens the grounds but cannot disguise the fact that many of the cages, pits and corrals seem to have been jerry-built and are becoming old and shabby.
In fairness to the San Diego Zoo staff, which is aware of the deficiencies and anxious to correct them, it should be noted that while maintaining the mighty Balboa Park collection it has also built what amounts to a branch zoo, as modern and innovative as anybody could wish for. This is the Wild Animal Park, opened in 1972 after 10 years of planning and construction. It is located on an 1,800-acre tract 30 miles from downtown, against the flank of the Coastal Range Mountains.
The principal feature of the WAP is a series of large fenced fields that have been cleared of the native chaparral (and as far as possible, of coyotes, rattlesnakes and ground squirrels) and stocked with mixed herds of exotic beasts. At present, most of the animals are from Africa and Asia, with hoofed stock predominating, though there are large lion, tiger and cheetah paddocks.
Visitors are taken past the enclosures on a monorail. There is also a pleasant mile-long hiking trail, but it does not extend into the center of the park. The monorail provides many overviews of large free-roaming herds and family groups, which would not be available to a pedestrian. The major drawback to the monorail is that the riders are a captive audience for the tour conductors, who offer a nonstop Disneyland dialogue:
"I want to warn you folks about leaning against the door. We are passing directly over the lions and they haven't been fed yet."
"It takes 54 minutes to boil an ostrich egg. I guess ostrich eggs will never make it big as a commuter breakfast."
"Now there, folks, you see a peacock displaying his plumage. Eat your heart out, NBC."
To enter the Wild Animal Park, one walks through a beautifully designed aviary, which may be one of the most attractive entrances anywhere. The theme of the central WAP plaza is aggressively California-African. There is the Thorn Tree Terrace (a restaurant), the Mombasa Cooker (a snack bar), the Kraal (a children's contact zoo), the Simba Station (the Wgasa Bush Line monorail depot) and a Congo River fishing village that juts out over a rushing waterfall. All of which looks a lot better than it sounds. The buildings are new, clean and fun in a carnival kind of way. There is a lot of clear, flowing water, which is always appealing in parched Southern California. Below a lagoon filled with waterfowl and trimmed with flowering plants is a roomy exhibit of lowland gorillas.
There may be considerable gimmickry about the San Diego Wild Animal Park, but it is entertaining gimmickry and does not detract from the fact that this is an important experiment in keeping, managing and displaying animals in a different way and giving the visitor a new kind of zoo experience.
THE ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM