Friday, March 9, 2012

San Diego - Day Two

After a somewhat raucous night of the odd middle of the night plane landing and the rowdy houseguests returning home at 2:20 a.m., I was up at 5:30 bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t make it even through 30 Rock last night, so I know I was asleep by 8:30. Argh, jetlag! Never the mind, Bev was up too and we ate breakfast at 7:15 and were on the road by 7:40. With time to spare before the San Diego Zoo opened, we zipped back down the I-5 to Coronado, which Bev didn’t get to see yesterday. I had spotted a Starbucks on the main street, so we picked up coffee and went back to the cul de sac I found yesterday and walked the beach for a while.

Figuring that even in rush hour traffic it would take a while to get to the zoo, we headed to the zoo around 8:30. It shouldn’t surprise you that we were there and looking for parking by 8:50. Incredible how close everything is here, despite looking so spread out!

We both bought the combined ticket for the zoo and the safari park. The admission may seem steep ($76 for both) but believe it or not that was discounted from buying them individually! Knowing we are going tomorrow, we were fine with this.

Of course our first stop was the pandas. I had seen Bai Yun back in 2001 with her first cub (and the first successful live birth in the US) Hua Mei, who now lives at the panda base I worked at in China in September. Bai has had five cubs, which sort of makes her a legend. It turns out today, judging by her frenetic pacing and scent marking, that she is in estrus, and it may soon be time to hook her up with Gao Gao to see if she can do it again. While Bai was practically manic pacing and high strung (very un-panda-like indeed), Gao Gao was the image of bored male in his enclosure, just lying there snoozing when we first went by. Gao Gao is a much smaller bear, by about 50 pounds. He is also noted by his partial left ear, which was ripped off before he was rescued as a young panda 20+ years ago. Of all the pandas I have seen though, Gao Gao looks most likely to be picked up and propped up against the pillows on my bed, if that makes sense. He’s the perfect size and has the sweetest face. We would return to the pandas two more times today…just because we can.

Both pandas have shaved bellies and right front paws, evidence that they have been tested and evaluated medically ahead of breeding season.

From there we visited a very handsome lion pair. I mean, these animals appear exquisitely groomed, even though that is a foolish thought. We mentioned that to one of the volunteers and he said the male especially always looks so well coiffed.

Since we spent all day here, the order we saw animals escapes me now, but the highlight of the day was definitely the Backstage Pass experience, which we paid quite a bit more for, but was SO worth it. We got taken behind the scenes at the zoo and got some pretty cool access. First we met a bear cat (binturong), which we got to pet and feed by hand. What was weird is that my hand smelled like popcorn after I patted it, which is why they named the bear cat Baprang, which is “popcorn” in another language. Then we went to the rhino pen and got to pet and hand feed a rhino! This was insanely fun. The rhino’s skin was so course and rough and tough, but if you felt in the folds of its skin you’d feel that it was somewhat softer there. And hand feeding a rhino? Just take a handful of chopped carrot and stick your palm up under its upper lip! Very wet and icky, but seriously a once in a lifetime experience! A kangaroo experience had us hand feeding a female and patting her (so soft!!!). The keeper also showed us the pouch on the roo, which was interesting. We saw a clouded leopard up close (but did not feed or touch it, for obvious reasons!) and got to have pictures taken with a serval, which is a sleek, gorgeous cat.

One animal I found unexpectedly fascinating was a white arctic wolf. He looked just like a regular dog. The keepers got him to howl at us, by making us howl to him. It was really cool. But what was really very touching was when they explained that the wolf had made his keepers part of his family, and that the older, senior keeper was his “mother”. How true that was because when she walked out from backstage to him, he dropped his head (a show of respect) and started to whine. She grabbed him and hugged him and really doted on him emotionally and I could see that he just loved her so much. It was a great moment to see.

On our way to the experience, we passed the cheetah enclosure, and I flipped when I saw a white sheep dog in with the cheetah! I immediately asked the volunteer nearby and it turns out the dog and cheetah were raised together since they were very young. The dog serves as a reality check for the cheetah, which tends to be hyper-skittish. If the dog doesn’t freak out over something, the cheetah won’t. Imagine my surprise that dog and cheetah were the grand finale for the experience. We couldn’t touch the cheetah but got very close and had photos taken with the dog and cheetah. It was just incredible.

We also found the orangutan enclosure, which I often watch on the zoo’s live cams. There were a few out and about and hanging on swings. Two smaller orangutans were lying in front of the glass and I went over and got down low. One came right over in front of me, so I put my hand flat against the glass. The orangutan put his hands on either side of where my head was and gave a big lick to the glass, right where my hand was. I repeated this just to see that it wasn’t a fluke and was impressed. And blessed with all these animal encounters!

One last stop at the tigers, where we found a tiger eating a big raw thigh bone from some unlucky animal. It was really very carnal, the way the tiger was just tearing at it and crunching on it, hoping to break into the marrow. Yet it was still such a magnificent animal to see.

After we took the skyride back down to the entrance, we stopped to buy a CD of all our photos from the Backstage experience and wearily climbed into the car to leave. Literally, we spent the entire day at the zoo…from before the opening to just before closing. And we were pooped but happy.

Once again tapping the favorites button on the GPS, we were at Old Town in mere minutes, looking for the Mexican restaurant I had visited and loved back in 2001. Old Town Mexican Cafe was still there and we managed to get in without a reservation since we were there early. A long awaited margarita (or two) were on offer, along with chips, salsa and guacamole. I had the chile relleno and chicken enchilada plate, which was fabulous. This was one re-do after many years that was just as I remembered it: delicious. We split a churro and dragged our tired feet back to the car and were back in the hotel, ready for bed by 7:30. PHEW! What a day…can tomorrow get any better?

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