San Diego Zoo Safari Park

gorillaCreativecommons.org/ Tammy Lo

This 1,800 acre zoo used to be known as the Wild Animal Park until a name change in 2010, but it remains one of the largest tourist attractions near San Diego. The microclimate of the park is semi-arid, making it an excellent habitat for African animals.

The African Plains are huge and are home to antelope, giraffes, buffalo, rhinoceros and, of course, the California Condor. It’s divided into East, North and Central regions, each with unique animal species. A tram takes visitors through the area, which is far too large to cover on foot.

The African Woods is a foot trail that takes visitors from scrub landscape (vultures and giant eland) to forest (duikers and wattled cranes) and finally to the African plains where you can see cheetahs. There’s also a lagoon filled with bright pink flamingos and noisy with colobus monkeys.

The Asian Savanna is almost as large and its 60 acres and houses wapiti, Asian deer and the Indian rhinoceros. This is also where you might spot the Arabian Oryx, once extinct in the wild, but rescued in careful conservation programs here and in only two other US locations.

The newly opened Tiger Trail is a beautiful habit for these equally beautiful animals and a glass wall lets visitors get hair-raisingly close to the creatures. There’s also a glass viewing area into the lion camp and an indoor exhibit that mimics the rainforest.

Safari West

lemur islandCreativecommons.org/ Thomas Kriese

This 400-acre private wildlife preserve,  offers unique experiences different from what you may find in a zoo. You can spend the night inside the preserve in a luxury tent atop a high wooden platform and watch the animals graze as you have your morning coffee. The park warns you about mysterious night noises, but how many people can say that they were kept awake by a flamboyance of flamingos?

If you only have time for a day visit, the park has guided tours that get you up close to giraffes, buffalo and wildebeests. as well as flocked by exotic birds in the aviary and delighted by the playful residents of Lemur Island.

The park is primarily a wildlife preserve and you may not be able to see all the animals you’re interested in, but the educational aspects of your visit in addition to knowing you are contributing to saving endangered animals will hopefully ease your mind.

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

giraffeCreativecommons.org/ Catherine Snodgrass

Almost half of this 1,800 acre park has been left in its natural state and is home to desert animals from all over the world. The zoo has been expanding since 1970 and most recently completed a pronghorn exhibit to add to the amphibian display, greenhouses and replica of the Mojave Desert. The lion habitat is nearly complete but the habitats for bobcat, mountain lions and cheetah are open.

Morning is the best time to visit, before the heat of the desert drives animals and visitors inside out of the sun. Early risers can often see tortoises and lizards warming themselves on the rocks and the birds of prey stretching out their wings to catch some sun.

Afternoon visitors enjoy the antics of the meerkats who seem to love romping in the heat. The cheetahs especially seem to know how majestic they look perched on a high ridge, watching the sun set.

The Cat House

Exotic Feline Breeding Compound’s Feline Conservation Center, affectionately known as The Cat House, Is dedicated to preserving and protecting the world’s most endangered felines. Most of the compound is open during the day and visitors are welcome to wander at their own pace. This is not a zoo and visitors can get quite close to the animals, sometimes within five feet.

Three times a year the compound offers Twilight Tours for those 18 and older and the entire park is open for those few hours. The cats are most active in the evening and the park gives them treats to encourage them to come out from their dens, ensuring that guests will see most of the 19 species of cat living in the conservation centre.

California Living Museum

This small zoo began as an educational facility that teaches the public about wildlife native to California. It also had a program to rehabilitate injured animals and release them back into the wild when possible. Both programs continue, and the zoo became a habitat for animals that are unreleasable due to injury or other reasons. This desire to provide a home for otherwise homeless animals has created a fun mix of creatures in a relatively small space. Black bears, bobcats, foxes, eagles and even mallards live here in addition to numerous owls, hawks, deer and even a few domestic animals.

The zoo also has a garden exhibit that features trees native to the Sierra Mountains and desert plants from the Palm Desert. The reptile house has the venomous rattlesnake that is common in California and the inland pond has both birds and beaver.

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