The San Diego Zoo Safari Park [sdzsafaripark.org], formerly known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park, is the sister facility to the world-famous San Diego Zoo [averagetraveller.com]. Built in the early 70’s to house larger animals and those that need more space than they could offer at the main zoo, the Safari Park was one of the first natural environment zoos in the world.
The basic idea behind a natural environment zoo is that cages are kept to a minimum and barriers between the animals and the people are made to be as unobtrusive as possible, often using berms and moats to act as “invisible” barriers. The largest feature at the Safari Park are the large Asian Savanna and African Plains covering 300 acres where different animals roam and mix without dividers. While there aren’t set areas where you will find specific animals, the tend to hang out together and have their favorite spots (likely close to where their food is).
There are viewing platforms all around the open habitat; however, because the animals tend to roam around the best way to see them is on one of the guided safari tours. A tram safari is included with your park admission, but you can also upgrade to smaller private tours in carts and caravans [sdzsafaripark.org] for an additional fee. Fees collected for safaris go to support the conservation and educational programs at the park.
Of course, the open plains are really only open to those animals that play nicely with others – mostly the vegetarian type. The more predatory creatures are segregated into their own areas.
Another very cool exhibit that they have is the Cheetah Run where they let you watch a cheetah at near full speed along a specially built strip of grass. If you decide not to pay extra for reserved seating be sure to get there early. We arrived 45 minutes before show time and got spots along the fence, although we had to fight off many late comers who thought that it would be okay to lean over top of our kids to get a view. After I stopped being polite about it most of them decided to move along and pester some other well planned people further down the fence.
While watching the crowds build shortly before the Cheetah Run we noticed one brave woman go off-path and head up the hill behind us to get a better view. She was one of the few for which these signs did not make an impression:
Like all major zoos these days there is a strong focus on conservation and education but if you still carry a little guilt about animals in captivity you might still enjoy the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They go a long way to making sure that the animals are well respected, have reasonably natural habitats, and are given the space to stretch their legs. The park is 35 miles out of San Diego and takes about an hour to get to by car. Be warned that there is a lot of walking and a lot of hills and stairs to climb. Of course, the best part of this park is the Roar and Snore overnight program, but that’s another post.
Update: To see more pictures be sure to check out my San Diego Zoo Safari park 2011 Flickr set!