In three weeks’ time, I visited three of San Diego’s biggest tourist attractions – the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and SeaWorld of San Diego. After battling crowds on weekends and battling smaller crowds on weekdays for each park, I reached an overall conclusion: Humans are the winners and animals are the losers. Of course, since we are also animals – primates to be exact – everyone loses. Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee, suggests we are a third kind of chimp.

All three parks operate under the guise of science and education – research, saving species, returning animals to the wild, teaching the public about environmental and ecological issues, along with public education about animals in general.

SeaWorld, though, is proprietary, and mixes profit into the formula, so one is never sure if pursuit of the dollar is the motivating factor. They claim to conduct research, say they have reintroduced thousands of animals into the wild and provide public education. Undoubtedly, they do, but to a degree justifying their existence is questionable.

The park itself has become like a midway at a county fair. There are rollercoasters, shooting galleries, a playground, face painters, and other carnival-style games and rides. Also, one can learn more about sea life at Birch Aquarium.


Spider face

SeaWorld does, however, sell beer, but at nearly $15 a pop, one must really like beer or be a chronic alcoholic. I bought one (Dos XX) but generally I go to Costco for beer.

SeaWorld’s big attractions – orcas, dolphins, penguins (probably the best display), and sharks are all there. But ever since the movie Black Fish, the orcas and dolphins are hard to find. For a few extra dollars you can pet the dolphins.

Viewing the orcas is a little more difficult. They are tucked away in a super-sized swimming pool. At first glance it seems to be plenty big. But these are huge animals who are supposed to be swimming thousands of miles every year. Keeping them captive in a swimming pool is similar to keeping a human in a small glass closet for a lifetime.

Also, the place isn’t cheap. It’s nearly $100 to get into SeaWorld, food is expensive, it costs extra to pet the dolphins, play the games, and ride the big roller coaster. Plus, you have to pay for parking.

Rule: take a large wad of cash and a platinum credit card. Or be prepared for another mortgage on your house.

The San Diego Zoo is a better deal, with entry fees of $56 for adults and $46 for children 3-11. (Disclosure: I belong to the “Keepers Club” at $234 a year, which includes unlimited admission.)

While at the Zoo I took the guided tour on a double decker bus and sat on the lower of the two decks. I saw no animals. I don’t know if the top level was any better because in frustration I didn’t take another tour.

During my two visits, the Chinese Pandas were on display, and one had to jostle the crowds to get a view. That alone – not the jostle but seeing the Pandas before they were shipped back to China – was worth the price of admission.

Panda 1

Panda 2

Also, the aviary was a pleasant diversion. I have an affection for birds, and the place was full of them. Since I have difficulty telling the difference between a parakeet and an Amazon green parrot, don’t expect me to name them. I know most birds fly, have musical songs, and some birds, such as the mockingbird, develop vendettas against particular people and dive bomb them.


An aviary might be a big cage, and it’s still a cage, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me. Probably it’s because I don’t like traipsing around the countryside to see birds.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, in San Pasqual, is undoubtedly the primo deal of the three, at $56 for adults and $46 for children ages 3-11, plus parking. With ample land for the animals to wander, nice gardens, well-tended landscaping, a reasonably priced balloon ride that goes up 400 feet and back down (it’s tethered), a gasoline-powered tram that takes you on a 2 ½-mile Africa expedition, and all the educational shows, there is plenty to see and do.



Unfortunately, there are too many people walking aimlessly about who possibly also should be put in cages. I went to Safari Park twice, once during the week and once during the weekend. The former is better. The weekend has too many tourists which is bad for me, but good for the park’s bottom line.

The weekday I was there featured a butterfly exhibit with hundreds of the critters flittering about in an enclosure. But one could walk among them. Someone gave us a cup of watermelon pieces and a butterfly stopped by for a quick visit.

Butterfly 1

Butterfly 2

Even though the Safari Park animals are kept in huge enclosures, they are still glorified cages. For example, gorillas – exceptionally intelligent animals – were kept in a large enclosure, seemingly ample room. I don’t know that they agreed it was enough space. They all had bored looks on their faces as they examined people who were examining them. It was difficult to determine who was studying whom.

As usual, I am ambivalent over the question: Is keeping animals in cages ethical? Should we keep only insects in cages, and higher-order animals be allowed to roam freely? Where do we draw the line? Is keeping a species alive, research, and education worth the downside?

I tend to lean toward it is. Some species, such as condors, have been saved by the San Diego Zoo, and other species benefit from breeding programs. Obviously, the public is woefully undereducated about science and ecology, world-wide problems such climate change and its influence on animal habitat. Maybe, in limited cases, it is worth the cages. It is the last hope for some endangered species, and educates folks about critical ecological issues, including global warming.

Mike Bowler

Mike Bowler

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Recent Articles

  • I hate the idea of caging animals as well as the disappearance of species. However, I have worked in zoos and in dolphin research, both requiring captivity. Neither restraint is acceptable. What to do? We should be saving endangered ones, like the vaquitas, which are really in trouble. The condors, which have been bred and released back into the wild, but are now endangered again because of toxins they are ingesting somehow. All around us we observe the canaries dying off, precursors to our disappearance. I am distraught.