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Overnight stay at San Diego Zoo reveals safari park's mission to save wildlife

Sep. 8, 2011 - 01:54PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 8, 2011 - 01:54PM  |  
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It was a quarter past 3 a.m., and eerily quiet. Then a coyote cut loose. He was a local in a community of foreigners — zebras, rhinos, cheetahs, dingoes and bongos.

The coyote's noisy ruckus was joined by an African crown crane, speaking Bantu, I presume. Still too dark to see the bird, I imagined he was flashing his plumed head and flamboyant tail feathers.

Before long, a restless pride of lions stirred and began doing what they do when lion romance is in the air. I'm not sure of the details, but they weren't quiet about it. Some members of a small herd of elephants commenced their endless trek from one end of their enclosure to the other and back again.

Such is the pre-dawn ceremony at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an adjunct of the famed San Diego Zoo. Not many people stay overnight at either the zoo or the Safari Park. My granddaughter Melissa, 28, my great-granddaughter Skylee, 11, and their 82-year-old grandpa did — and the Roar & Snore campout was an experience none of us will forget.

The zoo and park are perpetual works in progress. The original 100-acre site keeps adding so many features that my wife, Bertha, and I — veterans of hundreds of visits since 1959 — still have to consult the zoo maps to avoid getting lost.

At the main zoo, visitors catch the Skyfari gondola and soar high above the 4,000 critters and that day's share of the 5 million annual visitors. A guided tour bus passes by three-quarters of the zoo's special guests, animals from around the world.

Still, despite the improvements, added attractions and diversions, the zoo complex is not just an "Isn't that's cute?" type of place. No exhibit strays from the zoo's primary objective: preserving wildlife.

The grandkids and I camped near the lions and a herd of elephants. Other animals, huge and small, were scattered about the 1,800 acres of hills and valleys.

After a barbecue supper, we were off on a walking tour of Condor Ridge and places most other guests don't get to visit.

Our docents were Navy family members Joyce Schilehose and her daughter Cindi, a high school biology teacher. Both were effervescent and funny but emphasized the importance of understanding our planet and the critters that inhabit it.

The story of the zoo's successful efforts to save the California condor hushed all of us, and rightly so. A species dating back to the Pleistocene epoch, and whose numbers were reduced to seven breeding pairs by the 1980s, was saved from extinction.

The progeny of those seven now number 350, about half of them in the wild and thriving, so far.

It wasn't a miracle, just hard science and a lot of work. I was so proud when Skylee told my son about it when he came to take her back to Arizona.

And so it went for the two-hour tour.

The next morning, we had two more tours. Both took us past gates marked "zoo personnel only." Two special guests came down to greet us, the zoo's black rhinoceroses. Hundreds of thousands of them lived until the onset of the last century. Now they are on the edge of extinction — perhaps a mere couple of thousand remain.

People believe rhino horn can be ground into an aphrodisiac. It can't, but another magnificent animal is now nearly gone forever because of superstition and ignorance.

The grandkids not only had a great adventure, they got a hard dose of reality that will serve them well when they take over the planet — and its critters.

Keith Taylor is a Navy retiree who lives in Chula Vista, Calif. Email him at krtaylorxyz@aol.com">krtaylorxyz@aol.com.

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