Plan Would Put New Sparkle in S.D. Zoo, Wild Animal Park

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Zoological Society officials on Thursday unveiled a five-year master plan that they say will enhance the roles of both the zoo and the Wild Animal Park as wildlife sanctuaries and tourist attractions.

The proposed changes, some subtle, others substantial, are designed to keep the zoo and Wild Animal Park in the forefront of the wildlife preservation and breeding business, officials said.

At the same time, officials hope to make the parks even more attractive to visitors, who are the primary source of income for the Zoological Society.

The master plan, called "the Diamond Edge" in reference to the Zoological Society's 75th anniversary in 1991, talks more in terms of general goals than specific changes and modifications at the two sites.

But, during a press conference Thursday, officials said some of the changes in store at the zoo include:

- Regrouping of animals, based not so much on the geographic location of their native habitats but on their "bioclimatic" environments--temperature, rainfall and humidity in their native lands. For example, African and Asian elephants, now grouped together, will be separated because African elephants are grassland mammals and their Asian counterparts are found in rain forests.

- Having plant life reflect area themes more closely. For instance, eucalyptus trees now grow in the Cascade Canyon, which is intended to represent a rain forest. Those trees will be cut down and replaced with ficus and bamboo.

- Abandoning the zoo's single reptile house in favor of smaller buildings housing more reptiles, amphibians, insects and small, nocturnal animals. For the nocturnal animals, the buildings will operate on a reverse light cycle designed to fool the animals into being active during the zoo's normal daylight operating hours.

- Improving educational features, including using video terminals to explain the exhibits; "interactive computer boards," and reproductions of habitats, such as rock croppings and streambeds, where children can play and receive "hands-on" experience in where some animals live.

Among the changes under consideration at the Wild Animal Park are:

- Development of as many as 10 stop-off points along the Wgasa Bush Line monorail ride, allowing riders to get off the 50-minute tour and linger at specific exhibits. Such stops would be staffed by Wild Animal Park guides, and visitors would be allowed to walk part way into the exhibits.

- The possibility that overnight lodging within the park itself will be offered, perhaps along the monorail route, so visitors can experience the sights and sounds of the breeding reserve overnight.

- More "behind-the-scenes" opportunities, such as the freedom to walk inside the elephant barn "so you can touch--and smell--where the elephants live," as one official put it.

Officials said the improvements will be made over a five-year period and that specific changes will be planned annually.

"We're dealing with a whale here. We can't swallow it all at once; we'll take a bite at a time," said Sheldon Campbell, president of the Zoological Society.

Doug Myers, executive director of the Zoological Society, said, "We want to take it (the Wild Animal Park) from an adult, passive experience to a family, active experience."

They said there were no plans to increase the cost of admission to either the zoo or the Wild Animal Park this year. And although they acknowledged some concern that costs at the Wild Animal Park have exceeded revenue in all but one year of the park's 13-year history, they said there were no plans to introduce revenue-producing amusement rides.

"That's not in the stars," Myers said. "That's not our mission. The Wild Animal Park is a breeding reserve, and its success is very clear. Financially, we have accepted the Wild Animal Park's position."

But by enhancing the visitor's experience at the park, greater attendance--and, consequently, more revenue--can be expected, he said.

Attendance at both the zoo and the Wild Animal Park was down about 8% in 1984, but officials blame that on a combination of unusually hot and humid summer weather and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In fact, they said, the attendance did not drop as dramatically as they had expected.

The Diamond Edge plan calls for what officials characterize as five "key result areas." They are:

- To integrate animals, plants and facilities.

- To make the San Diego Wild Animal Park self-sustaining.

- To make the organization more responsive to its operating environment.

- "Revenue enhancement."

- To improve the visitor's experience.

Sixteen different groups of staff members, Zoological Society trustees and outside consultants helped develop the long-range plan.

A summary of the Diamond Edge plan concluded: "In the public's mind, we want our parks to be the jewels of the zoo world and, like the diamond edge of a fine tool, cut through the years ahead with innovative approaches to exhibiting and preserving wild species that will maintain forever our preeminence in the world of zoological parks."

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