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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone; written in 2009)

The San Diego Zoo has been one of the city’s most popular attractions since it opened in 1916. It is set on 100 acres at Balboa Park, just one and a half miles north of downtown San Diego. The zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals of 800 species or subspecies and over 700,000 plants from around the world.

The various exhibits recreate the native environments of the animals. Monkey Trails, opposite the zoo entrance, opened in 2005 and has over 30 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds set in a tropical forest. You can see the animals from the elevated walkway through the canopy. There are endangered monkey species such as Schmidt’s guenons, golden-bellied mangabeys, and mandrills who will stare right back at you. Look carefully for clouded leopard who are solitary and often well hidden. The pygmy hippopotamus might be hard to find too as they too are usually solitary.

Tiger River is another jungle environment, complete with mist, tropical trees, and vines. Look closely and you might see that tigers have five toes on their front paws and four on their back paws. The large front paws are used to bring down their prey. You will also see fresh water crocodiles from Australia, less dangerous than their larger salt water cousins. Fishing cats from Asia can be seen swimming as they hunt for fish and amphibians.

Ituri Forest replicates an equatorial rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here you will see different species play together. Watch as a swamp monkey grabs the tail of a spotted-neck otter, or rides on its back. The otters will climb low trees, perhaps mimicking the monkeys who watch on. An otter might bump a monkey, and then roll away when the monkey grabs at its tail. But the otter doesn’t retreat far, seemingly enticing the monkey to try again. Hippopotamus are also in Ituri forest and may come up to the underwater viewing window to check out the humans.

Another good example of how different species can get on well together can be seen at Absolutely Apes. Here orangutans and siamangs live together and get on quite well in a natural environment similar to their original habitats. The exhibit is full of trees, sway poles, and ropes. The viewing area allows visitors to get quite close. One of the orangutans, Karen, had open heart surgery in 1994.

An Asian tropical rain forest is replicated at Sun Bear Forest with its palms, ferns, ficus trees, bamboo, and ginger. Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear. They are very active and agile and like to sit high in the canopy. Two cubs were born on 24 October 2008. When five sun bears first moved into the zoo in 1989, they tore up their habitat within a month and even placed logs as bridges, with one escaping.

The Gorilla Tropics exhibit includes features native to the gorillas’ habitat, including waterfalls, rocks, and open meadow, making them feel very much at home. Young gorillas can be seen rolling down the grassy slope. One or two gorillas often watch the visitors in the viewing area. Baby Frank was born to Azizi on 4 September 2008 and can be seen on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11am until closing. Other babies at the zoo include an anteater, and a giraffe born on 16 April 2009 who is six feet tall and weighs 156 pound.

You will get a clear view of four giant pandas from elevated viewing paths at the Panda Research Station. Bai Yun and Shi Shi are on loan from China. Bai Yun gave birth to Hua Mei in 1999, the first giant panda to be born in North America and survive to adulthood. Giant pandas are small at birth, weighing just 3-5 ounces. Adult pandas spend 12 hours a day eating 20-30 pounds of bamboo shoots. You can find out much more about them at the Giant Panda Discovery Center.

The polar bears have a cold environment created for them at Polar Bear Plunge where the water is kept at 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The viewing area allows you to see them underwater as they frolic in their 130,000 gallon pool. They are curious and sometimes come right up to the window. Diving ducks share the pool with the bears. Behind the polar bears are the Siberian reindeer. You will also see the Pallas’ cat, a small fluffy cat from central Asia which has round pupils and a coat that changes with the seasons.

Despite its name, there is something for everyone at the Children’s Zoo. It features over 30 exhibits. Kids can touch the sheep and goats. You will see spider monkeys from Central and South America. They have long and spindly limbs. Their tails are nearly twice as long as their bodies and have a hairless tip and skin grooves, serving as a fifth hand. Naked mole-rats from East Africa are neither mole nor rat. They are quite hairless and have pink and wrinkly skin that doesn’t feel pain. They are almost cold-blooded and are eusocial, with a number of generations living together. Only a few individual mole-rats reproduce.

At Reptile House, there are rattlesnakes, including some from San Diego County, as well as cobras, pythons, and boas. You will see Gila monster lizards, the world’s only venomous lizard. Reptile Mesa has Galapagos tortoises, the world’s largest tortoise, which can weigh over 600 pounds in the wild. Frogs, salamanders, and turtles can be found here too. The matamata turtle has a spiky shell covered with tubercules and flaps of skin, and has a horn-like growth on its snout.

If you want to see various animals and plants from Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea, visit the Wings of Australasia exhibit. You will see many animals unique to Australia, such as kangaroos and koalas. The aviaries have more than 100 birds from Australasia, including hornbills, lories, Micronesian kingfishers, and the raggiana bird of paradise which has deep red plumes and is Papua New Guinea’s national bird.

San Diego Zoo is at 2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park, close to the city center. It is easily accessible by car, bus, or train, and there is plenty of free parking. In early 2016, a one day pass is $50 for adults and $40 for children, and there are all sorts of other packages. The zoo is open from 9am to 5pm in winter, staying open until up to 9pm in the summer months.