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San Diego is home to 3 of the nation's finest and most extensive animal attractions


Noah may have parked his ark on Mount Ararat, but a visitor gets the clear impression that he probably made a pit stop in San Diego.

Three of the nation's finest and most extensive collections of animals offer a glimpse into a realm where biologists and hTC zoologists work to preserve species and educate humans about rare and common animals.

The San Diego Zoo is adding two animals to its collection of more than 4,000 animals representing 800 species -- a pair of giant pandas that will be part of an international breeding program. The zoo also has the world's largest collection of exotic and rare birds, and its collection of more than 6,500 plant species makes a visit a botanical treat.

At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, students of nature can observe natural behavioral patterns, watching wild animals in environments second only to the animals' vanishing natural habitats.

Sea World gives visitors far more in education and entertainment than its justly famous show featuring Shamu the killer whale.

San Diego Zoo

Founded in 1916, the zoo's 100 acres of exhibits are set in a series of secluded ravines. A walk along Tiger River, for example, leaves a visitor with a feeling of splendid isolation from the rest of the zoo.

Tiger River is one of the newer areas, landscaped to simulate a walk along a river in a subtropic jungle. Huge plate glass windows give a clear view of the animals in large exhibits landscaped to mimic their natural habitats. No iron bars or rock grottos here.

One of the just-completed projects is a bonobo (pygmy chimp) )) exhibit. The bonobos are an endangered species from Zaire, and the zoo is part of an international breeding program designed to provide diversity to the captive population's gene pool.

Also recently opened is an Australasian aviary, home to a spectacular grouping of bird exhibits that combine the resident birds with hundreds of plant species imported from their natural homes, the islands of the southwest Pacific.

The latest addition to the zoo was unveiled June 23 when a pair of giant pandas went on display in their newly built habitat.

Officials from several zoos have formed the North American Panda Conservation Society, dedicated to trying to breed pandas in captivity, to rescue this endangered species.

Wild Animal Park

The arrival of the bonobos and the pandas reflects the immense success the zoo has had in breeding endangered species. And the site for many of those successes is the Wild Animal Park.

The park, opened in 1972, was conceived as a sanctuary to expand the zoo's breeding program, and the results have paid dividends in the form of births of more than 30 endangered species, from the southern white rhino to the California condor.

The animals at the 2,200-acre park seem less "domesticated" than those at zoos. Watching cheetahs sprint from their overnight holding shelter into their outdoor enclosure in the morning and engage in roughhousing that establishes dominance almost makes the fences surrounding them seem to disappear.

Seeing giraffes, rhinos, ostriches and kudu mingle across the expanse of their paddock conjures up visions of Africa. Of course, the predators don't mingle with the prey, but that is about the only thing missing.

"We have to separate some of the animals and isolate others," said Tom Hanscom, public relations director of the park. "For example, the white rhinos get along fine with the other species, but the black rhinos don't get along with anybody.

This same wild setting, however, can provide some minor disappointments. For example, the lion and tiger enclosures have a lot of cover for the cats. If they decide to stay in the brush, no amount of coaxing or wishing is likely to bring them out into the open.

If you want the feel of a safari, make reservations (the park suggests two weeks in advance) for one of the park's photo caravans. A flat-bed truck with wooden-slat sides carries visitors into the exhibit areas where they can get close-up looks at giraffes and rhinos.

Getting the most from visiting the zoo or the park requires planning, patience and more than a little physical conditioning. Both facilities spread out enough that a day of traipsing among the exhibits will leave most people ready to crash at day's end.

One good tip at both places is to take the guided tour first, aboard a monorail at the park and by bus at the zoo. These tours will give you an idea of the topography of each facility and allow you to see those animals you really want to see, since it is virtually impossible to see them all in just one day.

Sea World

Sea World is somewhat more compact and a great deal flatter than the other two, so it is easier to get around. The trick here is timing.

In addition to all the exhibits, various shows scheduled around the park leave just enough time to hurry from one to the next. Choose the ones you really want to see, and spend the rest of your visit getting a close look at the sharks, holding a starfish and feeding the rays.

The shark exhibit includes a short videotape show, but the tape's impact dims when the screens lift and the visitor is surrounded by 680,000 gallons of water filled with what has been called the most efficient predator of the sea.

At the Tide Pool, you can pick up a live starfish (they are leathery but pliable) and see the smaller aquatic life forms that live in the calm pools left when the tides recede.

Sea World's crown jewel is the killer whale show. And no film or videotape can convey the awesome size of Shamu. The whales' leaps and twists in their 5 million-gallon pool and their cooperation with their trainers leave no doubt that these are strong, intelligent animals.

IF YOU GO . . .

Here's what it will cost to visit San Diego's animal attractions:

The San Diego Zoo, on Zoo Way in Balboa Park, is the least expensive. Admission is $12 for adults; $4 for children 3 to 15; free for those younger. The bus tour is additional -- $3 for adults and $2.50 for children. Parking is free. (619) 234-3153.

Admission to the Wild Animal Park, 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, Calif., is $17.95 for adults and $10.95 for children 3 to 15 (free 2 and under), during the summer; rates fall to $15.95 and $8.95, respectively, Sept. 8 until Memorial Day. The monorail tour is included in the price. Parking is $3. (619) 480-0100.

Sea World, 1720 S. Shores Drive, carries a tariff of $25.95 for adults and $19.95 for children ages 3-11; under 3, free. Parking is $4. (619) 226-3815.

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