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Nature lovers' paradise

San Diego Zoo is a delight for those who enjoy animals and plants.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- Carol Flatmo has worked at the San Diego Zoo almost 16 years and can't imagine being anywhere else.

Orrie Feitsma has been a volunteer several days a week for the past two years after spending six years walking the zoo to get his daily exercise.

Like many people, their reasons for wanting to be around the place are simple: Home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals, the facility is spectacular.

And as the signature landmark of this maritime city, it is as synonymous with San Diego as Busch Gardens is to Tampa or Walt Disney World to Orlando.

"If you haven't been to San Diego before, it's a good place to go to get a feel for what the city is all about," Flatmo said. "There are other places in San Diego, but if you love animals, this is one of the best zoos you'll ever come across. If you want to see everything here, it will literally take you all day to walk."

Nestled among 100 acres in historic Balboa Park north of downtown, the zoo's goal is to provide animals with an environment closest to their natural habitat. In doing so, it has made itself famous.

"At least half the people who come to San Diego talk about the zoo," said Steve Churchill, the owner of Run of the World travel, who led a group of visiting foreign youths on a tour of the zoo Wednesday afternoon. "The size and the variety of animals, and the fact that they are mostly free instead of in cages is what makes it special."

At this zoo, gone is the era borne out of the early 1900s when the basic premise of zoos nationwide was to capture an animal, then put it in a concrete-enclosed area for all to see.

The San Diego Zoo is undergoing major renovations to provide new living areas for its inhabitants. Almost 80 percent of the monkeys are not on exhibit while their home is reconstructed. The project is expected to be completed by 2005.

Meanwhile a vast array of other animals roams happily. Early Wednesday afternoon, an African bush elephant drew a large crowd as its keeper provided it a pedicure (Or was that a manicure?). A small crowd gathered, astounded by the elephant's eagerness to lift its leg through the fence.

There are owls, mongoose and steppe polecats. Koala bears (which really are marsupials, not bears) and parrots. A Visayan warty pig escorted her two young children to lunch -- raw greens and carrots. The rhinos slept, one rising briefly to give an annoyed look when a visitor called out to it.

The Tasmanian devil (real name Sarcophilus harrisii) is a resident too, though with its ability to consume 40 percent of its body weight in 35 minutes, it's no wonder he didn't have visitors.

That's the equivalent of a 150-pound person devouring a 60-pound meal.

Four huge camels are the neighbors of the Saharan Dorcas Gazelle, a desert dweller who can go almost entirely without water, obtaining moisture from plants.

For 10-year-old Rachel Smith, the biggest draw is the cheetahs.

"They're just so spotty and I really like the colors," said Smith, a native of San Diego who was escorting a visiting relative. Her 7-year-old sister, Julia, is a fan of the panthers.

"They're just so cute," she said.

And that's the idea behind the zoo: to provide a conducive environment for visitors to enjoy, while giving animals a loving place to live and reproduce.

"In the 1960s, everyone realized that we can't just keep going out to the wild and taking animals to put on display," said Richard Holtzman-Schwartz, a keeper in the children's zoo area. "That (idea) evolved into not only do we need to be self-sustained, but we need to start breeding animals to put back in the wild because we're losing them out there.

"The research dictates that if you put them in their natural setting, they'll be more apt to breed. If you put them in an area that's concrete, nice, sterile and easy to clean, they are not going to be apt to breed because it's not the best conditions for them."

Upon entering the park, visitors are struck by the lush foliage and tree-lined walkways, providing a natural setting for the animals and beautiful scenery for those who have come to see them.

But the zoo is more than just the animals.

The facility is a certified botanical garden with a plant collection valued at more than its animals.

"On that level alone, it's impressive," Holtzman-Schwartz said. "A lot of people think zoo and they think animals, but we actually have on a monthly basis tours strictly for the plants. We have a whole team of horticulturists strictly here for the plants."

For those who can't make it to the zoo, it provides outreach programs that travel to hospitals and nursing homes, as well as to zoos in other cities to teach about endangered species and reproduction and other issues.

And what does it take to keep the show running 365 days a year, entertaining more than 3.5-million visitors per year? A lot of hard work.

The non-profit zoo employs about 1,000 employees, including keepers, building and groundskeepers, horticulturists, people who package and deliver the food, and construction and maintenance staff.

And if you think you have to watch what you eat, try this: The zoo employs dozens of animal nutritionists who break down every meal each animal gets. No animal gets its diet changed without the nutritionists' permission.

The zoo operates on a $100-million budget, provided by donations, park admissions and membership to the zoological society.

"We are supported by our community," Holtzman-Schwartz said. "If it wasn't for the people of San Diego and our members and visitors, we would not exist. ... It's a big part of the whole San Diego experience."

Zoo inspires comparisons

The San Diego Zoo is synonymous with the city, with more than 3.5-million visitors annually. The Times asked several Bucs players to describe what animals teammates might be -- if they lived in the zoo. Here's what quarterback Shaun King, defensive tackle Buck Gurley and linebacker Shelton Quarles said:

Shaun King on:

MARTIN GRAMATICA: Penguin. "That's just how he's built. He looks like a little penguin."

DERRICK BROOKS: "Man, I can't think of one for him."

BRAD JOHNSON: Giraffe. "He's tall, and he runs bad; just like a giraffe."

WARREN SAPP: Walrus. "He's built just like one, big and nasty."

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON: Llama. "A llama thinks it's attractive, but it's really not."

SIMEON RICE: Gazelle. "He's one of the few big guys that actually looks like a smaller guy and can really run like one."

HIMSELF: Lion. "That's self-explanatory."

Buck Gurley on:

MIKE ALSTOTT: Elephant. "He's one of those run-over-you (type) guys but with good balance. And he likes to drag them along."

GRAMATICA: Monkey (like Rally Monkey). "He would be like one of those little monkeys that always gets excited. He's like one of those because he's always excited."

BROOKS: Panther. "He's like a four-legged cat, but a cheetah is a little bit fast. He's more like a panther. He can move, but he's not as fast as a cheetah.

B. JOHNSON: Gibbon. "They are like the big monkeys that sit there and think about the things they do, and then they do it. He's more of the thinker type.

RICE: Cheetah. "He's the cheetah. He's big, but he's also got the speed."

JOHN LYNCH: Ram. "He's just hard-hitting."

K. JOHNSON: "Oh, man. That's tough. I can't think of one."

HIMSELF: "I'm the person that carries the animals around. I'm that man driving the bus in the circus. I blow my horn and tell them to move out of the way for the animals."

Shelton Quarles on:

ALSTOTT: Wild boar. "He just rams his way in there."

BROOKS: Black panther. "Smooth, sleak and powerful."

B. JOHNSON: Bald eagle. "I don't know. Just a bald eagle."

SAPP: Brown bear. "Look at him. We call him Bear."

K. JOHNSON: Parrot. "He's talks too much."

RICE: Gazelle. "He's got speed and grace."

JOE JUREVICIUS: Wild mustang. "When he starts running, it looks like he's galloping."

DWIGHT SMITH: Koala bear. "They're cool, very cool."

-- Compiled by Antonya English and Roger Mills.

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