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san-diego-zoo_paul-eisenberg-resize.jpg“Where’s the two-headed snake?” the boy asked Mindy Scott, who hears that question a lot and has been questioned a lot during her 20 years as a tour guide at the San Diego Zoo.

Scott, who took my daughter and me around the zoo this past Saturday, directed the boy to the reptile house but cautioned him that the two-header may not be on display that day (it wasn’t). A few minutes later a woman approached Scott and asked where the penguins were. Donated to Sea World, it seems.


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I can’t really speak for the questioners, but I doubt they were disappointed for long, given how many other creatures there are to see here. If you tour the zoo on your own, as I first did ten years ago, your family will be able to see a lot over a six hour stretch if you pace yourself, wear sensible shoes, and make use of the free buses: a 35-minute bus tour covers 75 percent of the zoo and hill-beating express buses stop every 20 minutes or so at five points throughout the zoo.


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However,  if you want to have a better, more memorable experience, the question to ask yourself when visiting the zoo or its younger sister, the Wild Animal Park (in Escondido, about 45 minutes northeast of the zoo) is not which animals to see or how many, but how to see them.

While general admission to the zoo is not an inexpensive proposition, your best bet is to spend a bit extra for one of several open-air vehicle tours that will permit stops and animal experiences along the way. If you only have a few hours or if you just need a quick overview before navigating the zoo on your own, the one-hour, $39 Discovery Tour covers 70 percent of the zoo with a maximum tour group of ten and hits areas not covered by the free bus tour.

The two-hour, $69 Inside Look Tour limits your tour group to seven members and gets you into off-exhibit areas, which means behind and inside buildings and other places not accessible to the general zoo-going public. If your group is somewhat like-minded, you can help tailor this inside look by telling your guide which zoo areas and animals you most want to see.

And if money is no object, you can purchase a VIP tour, whose cost will vary by tour length as well as how involved the zookeepers will need to get in enabling your close encounters with the animals.

In terms of those encounters, there are a few that you won’t want to miss.

san-diego-zoo_mindy-scott-resize.jpgFeed the giraffes and rhinos

The Inside Look tour gets you behind the zoo’s giraffe barn, where your offering of acacia leaf sprigs will be accepted by a giraffe with a very long, dark tongue. Hold the sprigs tight and permit the giraffe to munch the leaves gradually or he won’t hesitate to slurp the whole bunch from your hand (shown at right; photo by Mindy Scott). And parents take note: the giraffe’s teeth are in back and on the bottom, which means most of your child’s exposure will be to the giraffe’s gums.

If you can’t get enough of giraffes surrealistically craning toward you (or potentially licking and gumming you), try one of the Wild Animal Park’s Photo Caravan tours – the two-hour Caravan Adventure seemed just right for my daughter, who was able to feed leaves to giraffes as well as gamely toss apples into the mouths of hungry rhinos who sidled up to our tour truck. While it’s a good bet a giraffe will accept your snack, the rhinos only seem interested in taking apples off your hands about seventy percent of the time, according to our guide. Should you get the chance, petting the rhino is okay, the giraffe, not so much. Also, best to allocate a separate day to tour the Wild Animal Park. Set on 900 acres, the park has a laid-back, safari-like feel and pace – in fact, in September it’ll officially be renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Back at the zoo, non-tour goers have the opportunity to get in on giraffe feedings, too; summer hours are Thursday–Sunday, noon–1 p.m. and 5–6 p.m. Three biscuits cost five bucks, but proceeds go toward the conservation of the endangered Grevy’s zebra, a reminder that wildlife conservation is a core goal of the zoo and park.

See the elephants and cats where they live

While the zoo’s barely year-old Elephant Odyssey exhibit is well worth visiting beyond a tour, Inside Look gets you into the elephant care center, where the sight of an enormous toenail file and cuticle hook will give your child an effective reminder of how tiny she is by comparison, as well as what’s involved in an elephant pedicure. Being as education is another major goal of the zoo, your kids also will pick up some impossible-to-forget tidbits, such as the fact that elephants stand for about 20 hours a day; if they lay on their sides for more than four hours, they risk crushing their lungs with the weight of their own organs.

Incorporated into the Elephant Odyssey is an outdoor lion and jaguar habitat, once again worth seeing no matter what, but an Inside Look will get you inside the cat care facility. Your kids will likely get a kick out of seeing some cat toys up close, including a large and seemingly durable plastic ball that has been playfully shredded by the felines. Hence the very durable doors on either side of the cat care area. And if you’re lucky, the windows in these doors will provide an unexpectedly intimate face-to-face encounter with a curious lion or jaguar (shown at top; photo by Paul Eisenberg). It’s a face-off you and your child won’t soon forget.

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