Baby Steps in the Wilds of San Diego

Baby Steps in the Wilds of San Diego
The young reticulated giraffe named Mosi--"firstborn" in Swahili--is its mother's first offspring but the 15th giraffe born at San Diego Wild Animal Park. At birth, giraffes fall nearly six feet onto their heads. (DON BARTLETTI / LAT)
Somewhere between the 500-pound baby rhinoceros, the 5-foot-tall baby giraffe and the litter of red river hogs, I became very grateful that I am a human mommy. Neither my Danny Mac nor my Fiona came into the world placidly, but at least no hoofs were involved.

My friend Suzann was a bit more sanguine. "Well," she said, gazing across the Wild Animal Park's African veld at a family of slumbering rhinos, "if your head weighs 800 pounds, how bad could it be to have a 500-pound baby?"

Glance at the infant in question--which lacks a horn but otherwise looks like an adult rhino, only smaller--and you know the answer. Pretty bad. The gestation periods alone--14 months for a rhino, 12 for a giraffe--do not bear contemplating.

As far as I could see, only the monkeys have it as easy as we do, and they carry their children around for the first year or so. After just three days trekking through the wilds of San Diego with 2-year-old Fiona on my hip, I was ready to concede that the greatest evolutionary development was not the opposable thumb but the invention of the stroller.

We did not go to San Diego in search of gratitude or lessons in comparative maternity. My husband, Richard, and I just wanted to get out of our house, our city and our clamoring heads for a few days in March. We wanted to spend time with friends and their daughter, preferably in a place where someone else would make the beds.

Unwilling to face the Friday evening traffic, we left Saturday morning and drove straight to the zoo, in Balboa Park. Literally a Hundred Acre Wood (and veld and new rain forest), the San Diego Zoo has earned a reputation as one of the best on the planet. And with tickets as much as $32, it ought to be.

The deluxe package we bought ($32 adults, $19.75 children 3 to 11, free for ages 2 and younger) included tickets for the Skyfari aerial tram, which aren't necessary unless you have a 4-year-old who wants to ride "the buckets in the sky" first thing. It also included a narrated tour on a double-decker bus and access to the zoo's shuttle bus service, which isn't narrated but is convenient for footsore kids and arm-weary parents.

It was spring, so we went off in search of babies, and we found plenty, especially in the Iturri Forest, completed since the last time we visited. At the Iturri hippo tank, a sign tried to convince us that a 1-year-old--almost as big as its mother--was still technically a baby. Little okapi hugged the flanks of their parents, and those red river piglets were unbelievably adorable. The baby Schmidt's spot-nosed guenon stole hearts as it climbed up its mama-monkey's tail and stared at children in the crowd with a wide-eyed wonderment that mirrored the kids'.

"The rhinos are cool, but I like the babies the best, " Danny Mac announced as we left the park to meet our friends and to check in at the Park Manor Suites Hotel, three blocks from the entrance to Balboa Park. We have stayed there many times and love it so much that my husband didn't want to mention it in print because, he said, "We'll never be able to get a room."

The hotel is fabulous. Once an apartment building that was a summer pied-à-terre for L.A. visitors, it has a wildly baroque lobby and period charm in every room. (Ours still had its turn-of-the-century built-in icebox.) The beds and bathrooms, though, are all modern and, fortunately for those of us with kids, seemingly indestructible. Most important, almost all rooms have lovely kitchenettes with a microwave, coffee maker, full-size refrigerator, dishes and cutlery. A nice continental breakfast, served on the top floor of the building amid views of the park and San Diego Bay, was included in our rate, $149 plus tax per night.

Park Manor Suites is also within walking distance of the Hillcrest district, chock-full of restaurants, cafes and good used bookstores. We went to City Delicatessen, a diner on University Avenue.

The staff was patient with our rather unruly party. The menu is huge, and our food ran the gamut--a great cheese-steak sub and omelets, fine pastrami sandwiches and a vegetarian sandwich that was a bit greasy and heavy on eggplant. (That's what you get for ordering vegetarian in a deli.)

The next day we had breakfast and admired the hotel's view before heading out to Balboa Park, which on a Sunday is kid paradise. We saw a show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and played on the playground, splashed in fountains and listened to a bagpipe player--all before lunch.

We ate at Prado, which, according to its sign, is the best new restaurant in town. This may be true. Our food was great. The shrimp quesadilla, chicken sandwich and huge chopped salad were all fresh and sophisticated.

The kids' meals were just as good. For $6, they included a mound of tasty taro chips, some of the meatiest chicken fingers I have seen and a colorful reusable plastic cup with a cool bendy straw. (I personally cannot get enough colorful reusable plastic cups with cool bendy straws.)

After staring down ducks in the pond outside the arboretum and watching a street performer make spectacular soap bubbles, we went to the Natural History Museum's dinosaur exhibit. A movie narrated by John Goodman relied too heavily on computer animation, but the exhibit of robotic dinosaurs, complete with babies, was amazing. The T. rex was frighteningly lifelike, and there was something poignant about watching the dads, former dino boys themselves, gaze with wonder.

Then we hit the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, also in the park. Except for a fun virtual reality exhibit and a space simulator, the place was a bit over our kids' heads. Our friend Brian tried to talk us into the Imax movie "The Human Body," but the mommies were already excruciatingly familiar with the human digestive system. Brian went on his own.

We tore ourselves away only when the light began to fade, returning to Hillcrest for a good dinner at Pizza Nova on Fifth Avenue.

After breakfast the next morning, we checked out and left for the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, about 30 miles north. To get a sense of the place, we took the narrated tram ride that goes around the park. We learned that the term for a herd of rhinoceroses is a "crash"; that giraffes give birth standing up and the babies fall out on their heads, a drop of almost six feet that prompts them to start breathing; that looking a gorilla straight in the face is almost always a bad idea; and that a 2-year-old won't sit still for a 45-minute tram ride even if lions and tigers are involved.

(To my chagrin, I later realized that the $84 couple's membership in the San Diego Zoological Society,, would have saved us money. As members, two adults get unlimited admission to the Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo for a year plus two guest passes.)

Back in the park's central Nairobi Village, we ate lunch. The good kids' meals included hot dogs, chips, raisins, cookies and another colorful reusable plastic cup. It all came in a colorful reusable plastic bucket that kept the kids occupied almost long enough for the adults to finish eating.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the park, petting the baby deer and goats, gazing at herds of giraffe, watching the lionesses stretch and roll over like kitty cats in the sun, marveling at how far an elephant could stretch its trunk to reach a sweet potato chucked by an attendant.

We wandered through aviaries and up into treehouses, watched gorillas watch us (but didn't look them in the face) and peered into a greenhouse with butterflies as round as hummingbirds. The best moment came toward the end, when dinner beckoned for many of the park's denizens. Mesmerized, we watched the water buffaloes and gazelles, the mountain goats and giraffes turn the California hills into a shimmering African tapestry.

As we dragged ourselves toward the exit, a group was setting up for an overnight camp-out in the park. Roar and Snore, the park calls it. We raced to the ranger station to sign up for the next available night, only to find that children younger than 8 are not allowed. So we all made a blood oath that in four years, when Danny Mac is old enough, we would return with our sleeping bags. Poor Fiona will just have to hang with Nana and wait another two years.


Mary McNamara is a features writer at The Times.