At San Diego Zoo, stare down giraffes, breakfast with pandas

Los Angeles TimesDecember 22, 2013 

SAN DIEGO — You and I both know where to find an endless supply of entertaining animals — felines, canines, reptiles, eating, sleeping, swinging, swatting, playing. It’s hard to look away. Time flies by.

“Yes,” you say with a sigh. “The Internet is ruining us.”

Probably. But I’m talking about the San Diego Zoo, an actual physical place that might not be a waste of time.

Here, without benefit of mouse, monitor or smartphone, you can lock gazes with a viper, smell elephant scat and coo at an adorable giant panda — until you hear the menacing crunch of that 230-pound bear’s sturdy teeth, snapping and shredding an inch-thick bamboo stalk.

That was Bai Yun, a 22-year-old mother of six, tearing into breakfast while I watched and winced one morning last month.

Even though most of its residents are captive nonnatives, the zoo is an iconic Southern California creation all the same, with more than 3,700 animals from 650 species, surrounded by 70,000 plant species and ogled by 3.5 million visitors last year.

If it weren’t for that pesky St. Louis Zoo (3,519,926 visitors last year), San Diego’s would be the most-visited facility of its kind in North America. The zoo’s leaders might prefer to emphasize its role in helping bring back pandas, California condors and other threatened species, but in simple gawk-and-snap terms, this territory has been a 100-acre photo op since before Kodachrome was born. In the 1930s, the zoo veterinarian used to roam the grounds between chores with a Graflex camera, then sell the prints at the front gate. (That vet, Charles Schroeder, went on to run the place from the 1950s into the 1970s.)

San Diego is my default zoo. Just as my daughter counts on seeing Reggie the alligator on her way into the L.A. Zoo (1,100 animals; about 1.5 million visitors yearly), I grew up with the Skyfari buckets dangling above and pink flamingos squabbling at the entrance. In the Children’s Zoo, I rode the Galapagos tortoises, and a goat once peed on me.

There were no goats on this trip, but in the several days that L.A. Times photographer Mark Boster and I spent roaming the grounds, there was plenty of sensory stimulation: One afternoon, passing the California condors, I glimpsed a tuft of unexpected fur on the rocks — a fresh spread of dead rabbits and rats, laid out by the keepers, for the scavengers’ brunch. At the Backstage Pass program, I got slimed by rhino spittle, howled in harmony with an arctic wolf whose fur was as white as snow and fed flamingos using one of those red plastic cups you used to misplace at parties.

I highly recommend the flamingo feeding. You sit on a bench with cup in hand, and the long-necked, sharp-beaked birds come at you like a squadron of pink Concordes. As they snap up the snack pellets, you feel their beaks rattling in your cup.

The next morning in the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback area — a major updating of the zoo’s Australian collections that opened in May — we looked on while keeper Kate Tooker gave the female koalas their eucalyptus fixes, then paused to cuddle a wallaby. In the next enclosure, keeper Lindsay King whispered sweet nothings to a male koala while it paced a few feet on a branch, climbed a few steps up a trunk, then settled in to munch leaves.

For a koala, which sleeps about 16 hours of every 24, this was whirlwind activity. And in this new setup, they’re easier to see — closer to visitors, less cloaked by foliage.

Of course, most zoo visitors also will want to pay visits to the lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes, and so did we. (One of the giraffes stared me down for so long I thought it might demand to see my ID.) But I set aside more time for my old friends the tortoises, which have been part of the zoo since arriving from the Galapagos in 1928.

This looked like a mistake at first: Beyond the boulders, I saw no sign of life in their enclosure. Then a boulder budged and a scaly, dark-eyed, primordial face emerged. Then another.

While I looked over those faces, keeper Jonny Carlson brought me up to date. In 1972, keepers stopped letting kids climb aboard. Nine of the zoo’s original tortoises are here, plus one that arrived in the ’30s. They bask in the sun to warm their cold blood, snap up greens from their keepers and — as I witnessed — occasionally bloody each other’s noses in lumbering battles for dominance. In other words, they’re no better than Congress.

And as in Congress, their tenure is closely tracked — in this case by the numbers painted on their shells. That’s how we know No. 5, nicknamed “Speed,” which weighs close to 600 pounds. He arrived in 1933. He was estimated to be in his 60s then, so he’s near 140 now, the oldest animal in the zoo.

There’s a good chance that Speed’s mother and father were lumbering around on one of the Galapagos islands in 1835 when a man with a notebook showed up and started tapping on tortoise shells. The man even sat on a few, finding it “very difficult to keep my balance.” Then he went home to England with his notebooks and wrote “The Origin of Species.”

That’s right: By the tortoise calendar, you and I are just one generation removed from Charles Darwin.

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