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San Diego's Other Animal Park

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 1999; Page E04

No, we're not talking about the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, or the only slightly less enjoyable Sea World, or even the "wild" seals that languish, like enormous dozing salamis, on the sandy beaches of La Jolla. San Diego's Wild Animal Park, about 40 minutes north and slightly east of the city, is one of the country's great animal attractions. Were it not located in the shadow of the greatest zoo it would certainly be recognized as such. Next time you visit Southern California, head for the hills and brace yourself for a different animal encounter.

The Animal Park, on 1,700 acres in the San Pasqual Valley agricultural region, consists of vast environments that permit the animals to mingle and behave, at least to some degree, as they might in the wild. Of course, spreading the animals out that widely makes them difficult to view--which is why the 55-minute, five-mile monorail tour is the park's highlight. The tour provides comfortable, close-up access to tracts dedicated to animals of North Africa, East Africa, South Africa, the plains of Asia and a Mongolian steppe. When our guide stopped the train at the foot of a scrubby hillside, a thick-legged, gravel-colored creature known as a Przewalski's horse approached to greet us with a spectacularly long-winded, buck-toothed honk. The park has a herd of the endangered animal, nearly extinct in the wild.

The guide-drivers are mostly trained zoologists, biologists or other professionals, so the tour is unusually informative. Our driver explained how the park, opened in 1972, is used as a breeding and research facility by the San Diego Zoological Society (which also operates the zoo). Its specialty is endangered creatures. In the East Africa zone, we passed a young adult male hippo lumbering around the perimeter of the area--scent-marking, she said, to ward off potential male competitors, who, alas, will never show up. We rode past a North African mountainside, where a herd of mountain goats displayed astonishing hoofwork, balancing on the most precarious ledges. We saw elephants, giraffes, tigers and wildebeests, all of them more relaxed and indifferent to observation than those you see in a zoo. When we circled back to the monorail depot, we could still see that proud young hippo working the perimeter of East Africa, a task that it appeared might consume the remainder of his day.

The park has several conventional animal exhibits, three crisp, humane animal shows, a botanical garden, lots of stuff to buy, restaurants, a petting zoo and playground, a fascinating but stinky aviary and a new Heart of Africa exhibit, which attempts to extend the concept of naturalistic environments to a more intimate walking trail. But after seeing the other animals roaming loose in those enormous homelands, it's something of a letdown to see them here. One exhibit had a warthog. It's great to see that proud snout and hank of jet-black hair up close. But the only warthog we could see was trying to hide behind a pile of mud and, I think, dung.

Compared with his brothers out on the plains, he appeared to be in solitary confinement.

San Diego Wild Animal Park, 760-747-8702, Admission: $19.95 for 12 and up, $12.95 for 3-11. Parking: $3. Go early in the day and proceed directly to the railway to beat crowds. The park opens at 9 daily; closing times vary.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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