The World Famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, San Diego, California is one of the largest and most progressive zoos in the world with over more than 4,000 animals of more than 800 species. 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 (0.40 km2) 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 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 and initially following precendents set by the New York Zoological Society. A permanent tact of land in Balboa Park was set aside in August 1921, and the zoo began to move in the following year. The publication ZooNooz commenced in early 1925.
Frank Buck went to work as temporary director for the San Diego Zoo on June 13, 1923, signed to a three year contract by Dr. Wegeforth. Dr. 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, Dr. 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.
Until the 1960s, admission for children under 16 was free regardless of whether they were accompanied by a paying adult.
The San Diego Zoo has been a pioneer in building "cageless" exhibits. The zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) was founded in 1975 at the urging of Dr. 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.
The zoo is extremely active in conservation and species-preservation efforts. Its Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) raises California Condors, 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.
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's Wild Animal Park, which displays animals in a more expansive setting than at the Zoo. Animals are regularly transferred between both parks, as well as other zoos around the world, usually due to Species Survival Plan recommendations.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the world's few major zoos to have almost all of its major exhibits be open-air; in fact, the only major exhibition building on grounds is the Reptile House.
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.
Its keepers are unionized.
Monkey Trails and Forest Tales Monkey Trails showcases monkeys and other animals from the rainforests of Asia and Africa. It replaced the older exhibit known as the Monkey Yard. Monkey Trails is home primarily to monkeys such as guenons, mangabeys and the colorful mandrill, but it also showcases many other species of animals, such as pigs like red river hogs, bornean bearded pigs, and Visayan Warty Pigs. The elusive clouded leopard also makes his home in Monkey Trails. Clouded leopards can also be seen in the zoo's "Wild Ones" show. 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. The African Aviary is home to many colorful birds such as the amethyst starling, Tinkerbirds and the sociable weaver. In smaller exhibits are many repitles and amphibians such as Pancake tortoises, green mambas, fire skinks, and many species of arthropods such as scorpions. Monkey Trails utilizes a new method of displaying tree climbing animals- by climbing up an elevated walkway throughout the exhibit. Some of the horticultural highlights in Monkey Trails include a ficus tree, cycads, and the ever colorful bog garden.
Panda Research Station As of September, 2008, 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) and Mei Sheng (male), 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 an as yet unnamed cub, have been born to the resident giant panda parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao. In addition to being able to view this rare animal species, the Giant Panda Discovery Center nearby has interactive exhibits that let the visitor experience first hand what the animals smell and sound like.
Polar Bear Plunge Polar Bear Plunge houses over 30 species representing the Arctic. The main animals in the area are the three polar bears, named Kalluk, Chinook and Tatqiq. Another animal that makes its home in Polar Bear Plunge is the reindeer or caribou. A large moat separates the bears and the deer, but to the guests it would appear that they are in one exhibit, making it more similar to the wild. An underwater viewing area is available to observe the polar bears swimming. Further down the path lies the arctic aviary, home to the Diving ducks including buffleheads, Harlequin duck, the smew and long-tailed ducks. The aviary houses more than 25 species of duck. The last stop on the polar journey is to look at the two cat species in the area, a Pallas cat and a Serval. Some of the horticultural highlights include giant redwood trees, many different pine trees, and manzanita.
Ituri Forest 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 Monkey, guenons, Spotted-necked Otters, and giant African Forest Buffalo can be found coexisting within the exhibit. One of the highlights of the African adventure are 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. One can also see bongoes and 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 even some bamboo.
Elephant Odyssey 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 elephant habitat—more than 3 times the size of the Zoo's former elephant exhibit. The herd includes one male and six females 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, tapirs, guanacos, tree sloths, Secretary birds, dung beetles, turtles, frogs, camels, pronghorn, horses, rattlesnakes, and for the first time at the Zoo, the California condor.