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An African Safari in America

An Inside Look at San Diego Zoo's Safari Park

Ever wanted to go on an African safari; cruising through the savanna and seeing rhinos, giraffes, and zebras? What about seeing a cheetah run at full speed? The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, CA is one of the few places on Earth that can offer that experience without the hassle of overseas travel.

Rick Schwartz, an Ambassador of San Diego Zoo Global, says, “The Safari Park is like Africa, but closer.” However, you won’t be going around in your own car. Instead, there are several different ways to get around, from traveling around the perimeter on the narrated tram to riding through on a guided caravan or cart.

Having worked for the organization for 16 years, Schwartz has a lot of experience with the tours. “My personal favorite one is the caravan safari,” he says. “It’s a little more intimate because it’s just you and twelve other people and the educator, so you can ask questions.” Even better, the animals know to approach the open-air caravan for treats, leading to some great photo opportunities.

“I was told many times by people who have been to Africa that they like this better because it’s like being on safari, but cheaper,” says Schwartz. “Which you think is just a funny soundbite, but I’ve been to Kenya and they’re right.”

Unlike most zoos, several of the animals are allowed to roam around together, but there are limitations. “For the safety of some species, we don’t keep them all together.” Naturally, you won’t see lions and cheetahs mingling with the cape buffalo and giraffes, but many might be surprised to find that zebras also have their own area. He explains, “Zebras are nasty and aggressive, so they are kept separate.”

Aside from the safari tours, the park offers lots of other attractions and packages. “One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is Condor Ridge because it’s one of the few places you can see California Condors,” he says. There are also behind-the-scenes tours where you can watch feedings and get a closer look at lions, rhinos, and more. For those who would rather do than see, try the Jungle Ropes Safari to climb like a monkey on a challenging rope course.

One of the coolest things at Safari Park, however, is Shiley's Cheetah Run, where you can watch the fastest land mammal race over a hundred meters in 5 seconds. The chance to see the run itself is free with admission, but if you book the VIP pass, you’ll get to meet the cheetah after the race. You can’t pet it, though. “As well trained as it is, it is still a wild cat,” Schwartz cautions. But he says it’s still an amazing experience. “As someone who spent 20-some-odd years working with animals, just being near the cheetah as it cools down from its run in incredible.”

He adds that they also do their best to make sure the cheetah wants to race. Though San Diego’s weather is fairly consistent, they don’t let the cheetah run if it’s too hot out or if the track is wet. It’s an educational experience, not a show. “We recognize they’re not performing animals. They do this because running is part of their natural habits. If they don’t want to run, we don’t make them do it.”

With so many different animals, keeping everyone happy and healthy is a priority. “We can’t ask a giraffe ‘are you happy?’” he says. But by keeping an eye on things like eating habits and stress levels, they can ensure the multiple residents in the park are physically and emotionally comfortable. “We have some of the best animal care staff on the planet. And I say that with absolute sincerity.”

If you’re planning a trip to San Diego Safari Park, Schwartz says the best way to enjoy the trip is to get there before the park opens to avoid the lines and to stay until the evening. Also, check the website and social media for schedules and booking specialty experiences. “If you go in with a plan, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing everything around.”

-By Ettractions Digital Content Editor ALLISON BENNETT

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