One of the largest and most respected zoos in the world, a visit to the San Diego Zoo is a must for anyone visiting Southern California. The zoo's statistics are truly impressive - over 800 species of animals and over 4,000 individual animals and birds can be seen throughout the zoo's 100 acres of grounds. It is also one of the few zoos in the world that is home to the giant panda.
The zoo was founded in 1916 by Dr. Harry Wegeforth who was also responsible for many of its early acquisitions. Wegeforth traveled overseas and would exchange animals from North America for more exotic creatures. Land in Balboa Park was set aside in 1921 and the zoo moved to its permanent location the following year. Over the decades, as the zoo grew in size, it began to place an emphasis on education and conservation; it was also one of the first zoos to use natural enclosures, rather than cages.
As you might expect from one of the best zoos in the world, the variety of animals on display is immense. The zoo is divided into several themed areas, such as an African rain forest, an Arctic wilderness and the newest attraction, Elephant Odyssey. The zoo boasts plenty of rare and exotic animals - bearded pigs, clouded leopards, Przewalski's horses and some giant Galapagos tortoises. There are also a sea lion show, a children's zoo and a reptile house - one of the few indoor exhibits.
But one of the most popular - and most crowded - attractions is the Panda Research Station. In addition to excellent vantage points from which to view the zoo's four pandas, the facility also houses a discovery center. Visitors can use the interactive exhibits to find out all about these endangered species; there is also a climb-in panda den and the chance to find out what a panda smells and sounds like. The zoo takes their responsibility to the pandas seriously - there is a team of panda experts on the staff and the zoo even grows its own bamboo on the grounds.
There are several ways to see the zoo. Guests can walk on a self-guided tour, though it is important to realize that the zoo covers several miles. There are also guided bus tours, which take in most of the park as well as a miniature railway, which gives an overview of Balboa Park. The zoo also offers custom tours for groups, tailored to a particular theme or interest. But the most spectacular view of the animals as well as the beautiful grounds is to be had from the Skyway Aerial Tram, providing a memorable experience for visitors since 1969.
The San Diego Zoo is located in the city's Balboa Park, near to downtown. It's open every day, with extended hours during the summer. The facilities are excellent and the zoo offers a program of daily activities and shows. You can even spend the night at the zoo, with its popular sleepover program, including themed sleepovers for Halloween and Mother's Day.