Breakfast with pandas at San Diego Zoo

CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS
Last updated 05:00 06/11/2013

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You and I both know where to find an endless supply of watchable animals - felines, canines, reptiles, eating, sleeping, swinging, swatting, spooning. It's hard to look away. Time flies by.

"Yes," you say with a sigh. "The Internet is ruining us."

Probably. But I'm talking about the San Diego Zoo, an actual physical place that might not be a waste of time.

Here, without benefit of mouse, monitor or smartphone, you can lock gazes with a viper, smell elephant scat and coo at an adorable giant panda - until you hear the menacing crunch of that 230-pound bear's sturdy teeth, snapping and shredding an inch-thick bamboo stalk.

That was Bai Yun, a 22-year-old mother of six, tearing into breakfast while I watched and winced one morning last month.

Even though most of its residents are captive non-natives, the zoo is an iconic Southern California creation all the same, with more than 3,700 animals from 650 species, surrounded by 70,000 plant species and ogled by 3.5 million visitors last year.

If it weren't for that pesky St. Louis Zoo (3,519,926 visitors last year), San Diego's would be the most-visited facility of its kind in North America.

The zoo's leaders might prefer to emphasize its role in helping bring back pandas, California condors and other threatened species, but in simple gawk-and-snap terms, this territory has been a 100-acre photo op since before Kodachrome was born.

In the 1930s, the zoo veterinarian used to roam the grounds between chores with a Graflex camera, then sell the prints at the front gate. (That vet, Charles Schroeder, went on to run the place from the 1950s into the 1970s.)

San Diego is my default zoo. Just as my daughter counts on seeing Reggie the alligator on her way into the LA Zoo (1,100 animals; about 1.5 million visitors yearly), I grew up with the Skyfari buckets dangling above and pink flamingos squabbling at the entrance. In the Children's Zoo, I rode the Galapagos tortoises, and a goat once peed on me.

There were no goats on this trip, but in the several days that LA Times photographer Mark Boster and I spent roaming the grounds, there was plenty of sensory stimulation: One afternoon, passing the California condors, I glimpsed a tuft of unexpected fur on the rocks - a fresh spread of dead rabbits and rats, laid out by the keepers, for the scavengers' brunch.

At the Backstage Pass program, I got slimed by rhino spittle, howled in harmony with an arctic wolf whose fur was as white as snow and fed flamingos using one of those red plastic cups you used to misplace at frat parties.

I highly recommend the flamingo feeding. You sit on a bench with cup in hand, and the long-necked, sharp-beaked birds come at you like a squadron of pink Concordes. As they snap up the snack pellets, you feel their beaks rattling in your cup.

The next morning in the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback area - a major updating of the zoo's Australian collections that opened in May - we looked on while keeper Kate Tooker gave the female koalas their eucalyptus fixes, then paused to cuddle a wallaby. In the next enclosure, keeper Lindsay King whispered sweet nothings to a male koala while it paced a few feet on a branch, climbed a few steps up a trunk, then settled in to munch leaves.

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For a koala, which sleeps about 16 hours of every 24, this was whirlwind activity. And in this new setup, they're easier to see - closer to visitors, less cloaked by foliage.

Of course, most zoo visitors will also want to pay visits to the lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes, and so did we. (One of the giraffes stared me down for so long I thought it might demand to see my ID.) But I set aside more time for my old friends the tortoises, which have been part of the zoo since arriving from the Galapagos in 1928.

This looked like a mistake at first: Beyond the boulders upfront, I saw no sign of life in their enclosure. Then a boulder budged and a scaly, dark-eyed, primordial face emerged. Then another.

While I looked over those faces, keeper Jonny Carlson brought me up to date. In 1972, keepers stopped letting kids climb aboard. Nine of the zoo's original tortoises are still here, plus one that arrived in the '30s. They bask in the sun to warm their cold blood, snap up greens from their keepers and - as I witnessed - occasionally bloody each other's noses in lumbering battles for dominance. In other words, they're no better than Congress.

And as in Congress, their tenure is closely tracked - in this case by the numbers painted on their shells. That's how we know No. 5, nicknamed "Speed," which weighs close to 600 pounds. He arrived in 1933. He was estimated to be in his 60s then, so he's near 140 now, the oldest animal in the zoo.

There's a good chance that Speed's mother and father were lumbering around on one of the Galapagos islands in 1835 when a man with a notebook showed up and started tapping on tortoise shells. The man even sat on a few, finding it "very difficult to keep my balance." Then he went home to England with his notebooks and wrote "The Origin of Species."

That's right: By the tortoise calendar, you and I are just one generation removed from Charles Darwin.

DO'S AND DON'TS WHEN YOU'RE VISITING THE SAN DIEGO ZOO

While at San Diego Zoo, consider these activities.

Casual or gourmet food options. Surprising places to spend the night. And a way to get closer to the animals.

To do the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego), set aside a day. Admission costs USD$44 ($53) for adults, US$34 ($41) for children ages 3-11. (Kids are admitted free in October.) Fall hours are 9 am-5 pm. From Dec. 13-Jan. 5, hours are 9 am-8 pm, except Dec. 24, which is a 9-to-5 day.

For an insider's view of the animals, do spend USD$99 (4119.5) for admission that includes a Backstage Pass. For that, you step behind the scenes for 90 minutes for close encounters (aka photo ops) with several zoo animals - a chance to feed flamingos and a rhino, for instance, meet a cheetah or see an arctic wolf from just a few feet away.

Don't bring your dog - or any pet - into the zoo. Rules forbid it. Service dogs, however, are permitted in most areas.

Do treat yourself to lunch at Albert's Restaurant, which is not a snack shack but a genuine restaurant in the middle of the zoo with "world cuisine" and a pleasant dining room and patio overlooking a waterfall. Named for a beloved gorilla, now departed.

Do try the Prado at Balboa Park (1549 El Prado, Balboa Park). The park's flagship restaurant is a few steps from the zoo's main walkway. It has an eclectic interior design and a big, shaded patio. Lunch and dinner.

Don't sell short the rest of Balboa Park (Visitors Center, 1549 El Prado). Besides the zoo, its 1,200 acres include 15 museums, the Old Globe and other theatres, gardens, studios, galleries, groves, trails, lawns, lawn bowling, golf, disc golf and perhaps the most scenic lily pond in California.

If you have a day to spend, the best deal might be the Passport to Balboa Park, a Passport/Zoo combo, or a Stay-for-the-Day Pass. Each allows admission to multiple attractions at a discount. Info: balboapark.org/parkpass

Do consider the Balboa Park Inn (3402 Park Blvd.) if you want to walk to the zoo or you want a kitchen or you're determined to avoid chain motels.

The inn has 26 rooms (10 with kitchens) in four buildings. The exterior is suburban Spanish colonial; the interiors are homespun, eclectic, a different theme for every room. Free breakfast and Wi-Fi.

Units rent for USD$99 ($119.5) to USD$249 ($300) a night. Drawback: Reservation policies are strict; it requires more money upfront than many other hotels.

Do try a slice from Pizzeria Luigi (2121 El Cajon Blvd). There's nothing fancy about the dining room - in fact, there's a bit of a tattoo parlour vibe - but the pies (including several vegetarian options) are tasty. Luigi has an older location (same atmosphere) at 1137 25th St. in the Golden Hill neighbourhood, also handy to Balboa Park.

If you're up for playful retro lodgings, check out the LaFayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows (2223 El Cajon Blvd), which dates to 1946. Beyond its facade of red bricks and white pillars, there's a lobby full of vintage details and a big swimming pool. Also low prices. Units range from modest hotel rooms to three-bedroom suites that are essentially vacation rentals. Non-suite rooms typically are USD$99 ($119.5) to USD$169 ($204).

Do eat at American Voodoo (4655 Park Blvd). This snug (capacity: 37) New Orleans-style spot opened in September along restaurant row in University Heights.

Do consider Flavors of East Africa (2322 El Cajon Blvd.; (619) 955-8778, ). Maybe you didn't come to San Diego for Kenyan cuisine, but these dishes are good. Many vegan options. Great value: Sambusas (meat and other ingredients in a triangular dough pocket) for as little as 99 cents each. Lunch and dinner.

For a French feel in the East Village, do stop at Cafe Chloe (721 9th Ave), a small, stylish spot with a curving bar and mostly two-top tables. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you're travelling without kids, do consider Keating House (2331 2nd Ave). This quiet Victorian B&B in the Bankers Hill neighbourhood has a limit of two guests per room, but it has great prices. A pleasantly lived-in feel. Rates USD$119 ($144) to USD$169 ($204). Not to be confused with the very contemporary Keating Hotel .

If the night is mild, do get dinner on the patio at Buona Forchetta (3001 Beech St.). This young South Park neighbourhood restaurant's menu is pizzas, pastas and salads, but do not be fooled: The sophisticated preparation and setting make it special. Opened in early 2013.

To take in the downtown scene while dining, do try Searsucker (611 5th Ave.), a cavernous restaurant serving "new American classic" food in the night-life-rich Gaslamp Quarter. The boss is Brian Malarkey, probably San Diego's best known chef. It's quieter at lunch, when I had a seared albacore tuna sandwich.

Need a late-night beer and burrito near downtown? Do remember the Waterfront (2044 Kettner Blvd.), an old-school bar and grill in Little Italy that claims to be the city's oldest tavern. The quarters are close; the clientele is all over the map. DJs often on Fridays and Saturdays.

For a great bay-and-skyline view and very good food, do have a drink or dinner at C Level/Island Prime (880 Harbor Island Drive). In this joined-at-the-hip pair of restaurants on Harbor Island, C Level is more casual with a big patio, a no-reservation policy, a menu with Mexican and Asian accents and dinner entrees about USD$15-USD$29. Island Prime is fancier, pricier, dinner-only, menu tilted toward surf and turf.

For lodging on the water, do consider the Kona Kai Resort (1551 Shelter Island Drive), a 129-room marina resort hotel that has been upgrading since new owners stepped in late 2012. Be sure to ask about construction noise, however. Between now and July, the hotel is adding 41 rooms, a tiki bar and a pool. Non-suite rooms for two are USD$139 ($168) to USD$309 ($373).

To see yet more animals in wide-open spaces, head for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido). The park is the zoo's sibling, a reserve amid rolling hills where animals have room to roam in conditions close to those of southern Africa. Attractions include a cheetah run and zip line. Admission USD$44 (453) and up for adults.

SAN DIEGO ZOO: ITS HISTORY AND SOME FUN FACTS

1916: Worried about what would become of the animals in the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, Harry M. Wegeforth founds the San Diego Zoological Society.

1923: Grand opening in Balboa Park. Adult admission is 10 cents.

1925: First koalas, kangaroos, emus, wombats and dingoes arrive from Australia.

1928: First Galapagos tortoises arrive.

1931: First gorillas arrive from Africa: Mbongo and N'gagi, later to be celebrated by bronze busts near the entrance.

1930s: Caught in a Depression-era tax dispute, the property and animals are put up for auction but attract no bidders. Zoo veterinarian Charles Schroeder stretches the budget by feeding carnivores horse meat.

1953: Schroeder, a forceful advocate for moats instead of cages, becomes zoo director.

1964: SeaWorld, a for-profit venture, opens on San Diego's Mission Bay, kicking off long-standing competition with the zoo.

1970: Joan Embery, a 21-year-old Children's Zoo attendant, is chosen as Miss Zoofari, a goodwill ambassador who makes appearances with animals.

1971: Embery, joined by Carol the painting elephant, appears Nov. 4 as a guest of Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." During the next 38 years, through the Carson and Leno eras, Embery is invited more than 40 times.

1972: The Zoological Society opens the Wild Animal Park, a 1,800-acre sibling of the zoo, in northern San Diego County. It's now known as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

1987: Fifteen years after the arrival of Chinese giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the San Diego Zoo receives pandas Basi and Yuan Yuan on short-term loan from China.

1996: Giant pandas Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrive from China on long-term loan.

1999: Bai Yun gives birth to Hua Mei.

2005: The first YouTube video, "Me at the Zoo," is shot in the elephant area and uploaded by YouTube co-creator Jawed Karim.

2012: On July 29, Bai Yun gives birth to her sixth cub, Xiao Li Wu. Combined zoo and Safari Park attendance reaches 5 million. SeaWorld: 4.4 million.

- Los Angeles Times/MCT

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