Close Encounters of an Animal Kind Near Home

Would you like to have an African giraffe eating out of your hand? Or get nose to nose with an Indian rhinoceros? There's no need to sign up for an overseas safari.

Just join a Southland photo caravan that promises close encounters with the exotic inhabitants of San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Visitors usually view wildlife from a distance while riding a monorail on its fixed route through this 1,800-acre sanctuary. But during summer you're invited aboard the park's feed trucks to explore the vast preserve that's home to 2,500 birds and animals from all over the world.

Conservation Center

The park opened in 1972 as a rural satellite of the famous San Diego Zoo, 30 miles to the south. It serves as a conservation center--36 of its 225 species are on the endangered list--and the animals roam as they would in their native homelands.

Every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon through Sept. 30, special thrills are in store for everyone who climbs into the open truck bed for a photographic safari through this animal kingdom.

One of the two-hour tours takes you into the East Africa and Asian Plains enclosures, while another goes to the South Africa and Asian Waterhole areas. Or you can combine both tours into a four-hour photo feast.

A supply of fruit and vegetables is taken along and tempts some of the animals to eat out of your hand. You might feel the sandpapery surface of a giraffe's long tongue as it curls around an apple. And don't be surprised if a Turkoman markhor goat hops into the truck for a carrot or two.

Most animals seem undisturbed by the photo caravan vehicle and rarely run off. Carry plenty of film to capture the zebras, hippopotamuses, gazelles, impalas, gnus, antelopes, rhinoceroses, oryxes and other wildlife.

Only 10 passengers are permitted in each photo caravan (minimum age 12 years), and reservations and payment are required. Cost of either tour is $50 (children 12 through 15 years $35); for the combined tours you'll pay $75 (children $50). San Diego Zoological Society members get a 10% discount.

The East Africa/Asian Plains tour and the combined tour leave at 2:30 p.m., the South Africa/Asian Waterhole tour at 4:30 p.m. Call the park at (619) 747-8702 to make reservations for these Wednesday and Saturday tours. Groups of 10 can request their own photo caravan on other days.

The price of the picture tour includes a species identification guide and admission to the park. Regular entry costs $12.95 for adults, $6.20 for children ages 3-15, including a monorail excursion and four animal shows. Parking is $1.

Even if you don't go on the camera safari, San Diego Wild Animal Park offers an enjoyable family outing. A highlight is the five-mile, 50-minute ride through the animal preserve aboard the Wgasa Bush Line Monorail. The operator stops the quiet train along the way to identify the animals and describe their habits.

Especially entertaining are the animal shows presented throughout the day. In a new show called "Rare and Wild America" you'll get to meet a black bear, wolf, bobcat, coyote, raccoon and other wild creatures of our continent.

Strong yet graceful Asian elephants perform some surprising feats in another show, while birds of prey, parrots and domesticated dogs and cats get lots of laughs for their antics on stage. Elephant rides also are offered.

On a stroll along the Kilimanjaro Trail you can look for sleek Sumatran tigers and lazy Asian lions. The trail also leads to the fuchsia and herb gardens, epiphyllum house and Australia rain forest that help make the park a botanical delight.

Bonsai Pavilion Open

More than 3 million plants decorate the grounds. Some are grown for animal food, such as acacia for the giraffes and eucalyptus for the koalas. Newly opened is the Bonsai Pavilion, complete with two dozen of the dwarf trees.

Especially lush is the center of visitor activity in the park, Nairobi Village, where you can walk through two huge aviaries filled with plants and hundreds of birds from Africa and Asia. Another popular exhibit is the petting kraal, where kids get to touch deer, antelope, goats and sheep.

Be sure to peek into the Animal Care Center, where newborn or orphaned animals get special care; check on the times when the babies are given their bottles. Also fascinating to watch are the lowland gorillas that live in a tropical compound.

When you're hungry, Nairobi Village offers several stops for sandwiches, drinks and other refreshments, including the cafeteria-style Thorn Tree Terrace. At the Mombasa Cooker you can eat at the edge of a man-made lagoon.

San Diego Wild Animal Park is open everyday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Normally, visitors must be off the grounds by 7 p.m., but this summer on weekends you can stay later for musical entertainment and wildlife films presented in the Mahala Amphitheater.

You must buy a special ticket for the Saturday and Sunday programs that permits you to remain in the park until after dark. Adults pay $3, children $2. Pack a picnic and blanket to spread on the grass at the amphitheater, or buy dinner there.

Free Animal Poster

In celebration of the park's 15th anniversary this summer, every visitor will be given a free animal poster. The cheetah is featured this month, while Przewalski's wild horse will be on the posters in July and the lowland gorilla in August.

To reach San Diego Wild Animal Park from Los Angeles, go south on Interstate 5 to Oceanside and head inland on California 78. It continues east through Escondido to the park entrance in San Pasqual Valley, but you can bypass the city by turning south on Interstate 15 to the Via Rancho Parkway exit and following signs to the Wild Animal Park.

Round trip from Los Angeles is 230 miles.

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