I grew up loving Syracuse's Burnet Park Zoo (now known as the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park) because, not being allowed to keep any pets of my own, it was one of the few times during my childhood that I had any access to animals, except for my uncle's obedience school dropout dog, and that Doberman that bit me that one time on a bike ride.
But my conscience has gotten the better of me in recent years, too empathetic for big cats kept in captivity, too guilty to admire monkeys in tiny cages.
Still, there's a big part of me that yearns for the days of the El Monte lion farm, and wants to ride an elephant.
I admit, I've enjoyed my camel rides in the Sahara, even during a sandstorm.
But despite whatever pleasure they may bring me, the responsible thing to do is to leave those animals out in the wild, and not put them in indentured servitude just for my recreation.
So if I have the chance to ride one of those beasts on a conservation carousel at a zoo, I'm going to fork over my four dollars to do it.
Despite my reticence to patronize zoos – not knowing which ones are the "good" kind and which are the "bad" – I chose to go to the San Diego Zoo Wild Safari Park while I was in the area. Because of its fairly remote location, I sensed that the animals there would be a bit more free-range than they could ever be in a city zoo, and unlike an actual African safari, there would be no hunting.
The safari park actually first opened in the 1960s as a private breeding facility for endangered animals, with the intent of releasing them back out in to the wild when possible.
When it started attracting the attention of locals and tourists who wanted to come visit the rare species and see the conservation work being done, it officially opened its doors in 1972.
It's still very much of an amusement park, but proceeds from admission fees, safari tours, balloon rides and the like go towards animal conservation.
The enclosures here are gigantic, giving enough space for the animals to roam naturally and establish a hierarchy within their groupings.
Of course, they're protected from natural predators, but they're still provided plenty of natural habitat features, unlike the cramped quarters of other zoos.
This place is still sad, though: some species, like the northern white rhino, can't be saved after being over-poached. Nola, one of the last five remaining on the planet, is probably too old to breed now, and this species of rhinoceros will likely become extinct in our lifetime.
Other animals do flourish here, like gorillas...
...lions and tigers...
...and cheetahs. You might encounter one during the daily "Cheetah Run" along a little racetrack, or, as in my case, being walked on a leash down one of the public pathways.
But the real stars of the park are the birds – be they wild turkey vultures and hawks, or the rare and endangered birds that were are conserved as part of the zoo's permanent collection.
There are pink-backed pelicans and white-breasted cormorants...
...adorable ducks, burrowing owls, and even bald eagles.
Some of these exotic birds have been trained for entertainment, and wow crowds with their incredible height and wingspan...
...impressive plumage (like the Victoria crowned pigeon)...
...and unique hunting techniques (like the secretary bird, whose talons are the business end of the body and stamp out prey like snakes, which the bird eats immediately or carries away in its beak).
One of the great victories in animal conservation is the California condor, which has been successfully reintroduced to the wild after going extinct (with the only remaining birds in captivity) in the 1980s. There are now hundreds of them surviving – and breeding – in their natural habitat.
After the free-flying bird show, the park raises more money with a staggering party trick: hold out a dollar bill, and this bird will come grab it out of your hand and deposit it into a bank. I did not have enough dollar bills for this brilliant gimmick, and the bird's handlers whisked him away far too soon.
This place is so huge, it's tough to do everything in one day. But I managed to squeeze in one last stop at Lorikeet Landing...
...where another four dollars will get you a shot of nectar to feed the birds...
...who'll land on your arm and peer up at you curiously – that is, until you run out of food.
I do think that these animal encounters can be really good for educational purposes as long as they're not exploitative. The more we get to know – and love – these animals, the more we'll protect them. Besides, the Safari Park is not meant to be a forever home for animals who could survive out in the wild. Ideally, it's a transitional home until their injuries heal and populations get stabilized.
Why not enjoy them while they're there?
I wasn't socialized with animals nearly enough as a kid, and spent a long time afraid of them. But I've been very lucky to fall in love with my friends' dogs and cats and ferrets and parrots, and to venture out as an adult and get to know other animals on my own. Now, I am not afraid to offer my hand outstretched.
I know I might get bitten again one day, but I can honestly look at an animal – almost any animal except a human – and say, "I'm not afraid of you."
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