Next Saturday, the San Diego Zoo — fresh off celebrating its first 100 years — steps into the future with the opening of Africa Rocks, its biggest construction project ever.
The 8-acre, $68 million undertaking relies on the newest thinking about zoos, which find themselves in an ongoing debate about the treatment of animals in captivity and are designing exhibits that are more naturalistic, more focused on conservation than entertainment.
That’s why the space for the African penguins, an endangered species, includes giant artificial rocks like the granite ones found at Boulders Beach in South Africa. It’s why the 170-foot-long pool they swim in has a wave-making machine to mimic gentle surf rolling ashore. And it’s why there are holes that lead to nesting caves carved into some of the rocks, a way of encouraging the penguins to breed.
“It’s more than just what you see on display,” said Dwight Scott, the zoo’s director. “It’s making connections here with the (conservation) work we do around the world.”
Africa Rocks replaces Dog & Cat Canyon, which dated to the 1930s. Back then, “cutting edge” meant grottoes carved into the hillside, one right next to another, like stalls at an open-air market.
Not much attention was paid to imitating the natural environments of the inhabitants. A sidewalk for pedestrians and a road for tour buses ran next to the enclosures. The set-up was mostly about people stopping and staring.
The new space will separate the buses from the sidewalk. Pedestrians will walk on a gently sloping, meandering pathway — built wide to accommodate strollers and the increased number and girth of visitors — past six distinct habitats housing flora and fauna from the African continent.
There will be a 65-foot waterfall people can walk behind and a 2-acre tensile metal aviary net overhead. It’s more about immersion than staring.
The plan had been for the entire project to debut at the same time this summer. But last winter’s heavy rains delayed construction, and Africa Rocks is opening in phases. Up first Saturday is the habitat the zoo is calling Cape Fynbos, home to the penguins.
The zoo’s new exhibit comes five weeks after its crosstown rival for visitor dollars, SeaWorld, made a major change of its own. The marine park unveiled Orca Encounter, an education-based replacement for the theatrical Shamu shows that had been a fixture for more than 50 years.
That shift came after a couple of years of declining attendance and revenue in the wake of “Blackfish,” a 2013 documentary that questioned the ethics and effectiveness of keeping killer whales in captivity. The film focused on Tilikum, an orca blamed for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau during a show at Florida’s SeaWorld Orlando in 2010.
Zoos have had their own controversies. Last year, a 4-year-old boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo. Fearing for the boy’s safety, zoo workers fatally shot a 17-year-old gorilla. That sparked a debate on social media and elsewhere about whether gorillas should be kept in zoos — and whether zoos are needed at all.
They remain popular. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit advocacy and accreditation organization, attendance at its 215 member facilities in the U.S. is strong, in excess of 183 million people annually — more than the number who attend pro baseball, basketball, football and hockey games combined.
The San Diego Zoo and its sister facility, the Safari Park near Escondido, draw about 5 million people combined per year, and officials are counting on Africa Rocks to be a popular attraction. They’ve been featuring it on billboards around Southern California and are planning live TV broadcasts with various stations after it opens. The marketing campaign plays on the different meanings of the word “rocks” and includes posters that have a 1960s concert feel.
Steve Fobes, the zoo’s chief architect, said the project was first presented to the board of trustees about a decade ago. “It starts with what we want to focus on in terms of the animal collection,” he said. “Everyone is familiar with the big animals from Africa, the elephants and the giraffes, and this became a chance to showcase some of the smaller, lesser-known animals from the continent.”
So the Madagascar Forest area will have fossas, a weird-looking predator (dog-like face, cat-like claws and teeth) that’s related to the mongoose. The Ethiopian Highlands will have gelada baboons, distinctive for the red hourglass-shaped patch of skin on their chests. (The redder the better, at least when it comes to attracting mates.) The West African Forest will have dwarf crocodiles, the smallest of their kind, and also agile — they’ve been known to climb trees.
Scott said the exhibit is an opportunity to highlight the zoo’s horticultural prowess, too. Although it’s best known for its animals, the zoo has a widely respected collection of some 700,000 plants, and Africa Rocks will feature specimens from the continent — the Madagascar mousetrap tree, the pincushion protea and the baobab tree. Mike Letzring, senior plant propagator, has been gathering the greenery for more than five years.
A few of the large ficus trees in the exhibit aren’t new, however. They’re transplanted holdovers from Dog & Cat Canyon, the only reminders of what used to be.
Zoo design is increasingly about mimicking natural environments, and the new penguin exhibit is an example with its huge boulders, 200,000-gallon saltwater pool and a cobblestone beach.
In an unnatural nod to hygiene, though, the cobbles also have a built-in power-washing system because penguins poop a lot. (In the wild, they even build nests in their guano, or at least they did until humans started removing it to use in fertilizer. That’s one of the reasons the species’ population has declined from about 1 million breeding pairs to 23,000.)
The zoo has exhibited a handful of African penguins for several years in the Children’s Zoo, and they’ll be added to the colony in Africa Rocks that eventually will number about 35.
A couple of months ago, 15 of them arrived from the Minnesota and Toledo zoos and have been in quarantine. They went into the pool — which eventually will also include leopard sharks and fish — last week.
Scott said the goal is to develop a breeding population in San Diego that may one day be used to augment efforts in Africa aimed at saving the penguins from extinction. The zoo is a partner in that effort, one of about 140 conservation projects in 80 countries it’s involved in.
Much of how the zoo frames itself now centers on conservation. Scott describes the parent organization, San Diego Zoo Global, as “a conservation organization that manages two zoological facilities.” Africa Rocks will emphasize that mission, too, throughout the exhibit and at behind-the-scenes “inside look” tours.
Conservation also plays a key role in zoo fundraising. Money for the new exhibit came from more than 4,700 private donors, Scott said. Chief among them were noted local philanthropists: the late Conrad Prebys, who gave $11 million, Ernest Rady, who contributed $10 million, and Vi McKinney and her late husband, Dan, $5 million. Their names will adorn some of the exhibit signage.
The name Africa Rocks is both an exclamation about the biodiversity of the continent and a nod to how the exhibit was designed. Each of the six different habitats will have distinctive rock formations, from coastline boulders to granite outcroppings to cave stalactites.
Rock is also a kind of music, of course, which is why some of the zoo’s promotional material features posters with psychedelic lettering reminiscent of 1960s advertising for concerts by bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not, but the leader of the Hamadryas baboon troop now in quarantine at the zoo, awaiting its new home in Africa Rocks, is named Elvis.
Original article may be found here.