The pervasive feeling on an outing to the San Diego Wild Animal Park is happiness. The trip itself is a happy one, just thirty or forty minutes from downtown San Diego, through the lovely countryside of the coast range — farms, orchards, eucalyptus groves, and those wonderfully stark, dry hills, covered with scrub oak. You can go north on 395 to San Pasqual Road, and follow that northeast to 78: or you can take route 5 to Solana Beach, and then go through Rancho Santa Fe to Escondido; or you can even continue northward on 5 and get onto 78 south of Oceanside. All the routes have their measure of beauty, and all are good preparation for the park itself, located in the midst of chaparral wilderness in the San Pasqual Valley, east of Escondido.
The Wild Animal Park is a branch of the San Diego Zoo, but quite different from it. Only a small part of the park, “Nairobi Village," has the typical zoo setting, with animals in restricted cages, ponds or areas, lining walkways filled with tourists. Even here, there is a sense of spaciousness and ease — a pleasant restaurant terrace where you can sit and observe the spider monkeys cavorting on their adjacent island, a leisurely picnic area with a grand view of the park, a rambling lagoon along which you can stroll and watch the ducks and pelicans, an enormous walkthrough aviary, an African fishing village suspended on stilts over a waterfall.
But by far the greater part of the park’s 1,800 acres (not all in use at the present time) is given over to great open valleys and hillsides where African and Asian wild animals roam in settings sufficiently similar to their native habitats to make them feel completely at home. One of the signs that they do feel at home is the fact that a number of species which obstinately refuse to reproduce in zoos are here multiplying quite satisfactorily. The chief reason for the park, along with its entertainment and educational value, is in fact to provide an environment in which a number of endangered species, some of them no longer to be found in the wild at all. can reproduce and be saved from extinction.
It is hard to know what goes on in an animal's mind, but I can't believe that the elephants and rhinos, the antelope and zebras, the ostriches and cranes in this vast park dedicated to their comfort and fruitfulness can be anything but very, very happy. They have as much space as they could possibly want to run about in; without effort on their part they are provided with all the food they can eat: they don't have to fear predators who, back in Africa or Asia, pose a constant threat to their peace and safety; and they don't have to undergo the boredom or embarrassment of having people, that most dangerous kind of predator, staring at them all the time, as happens in zoos. The people do stare, but from a distance and in such a natural setting that the animals need not pay them an attention. The only access the public has to most of the park is b a monorail which twists in and out of its canyons and along it hillsides, high above the broad plains on which the animals make their home. Sometimes you can see them only from a distance (bring your binoculars); or sometimes a gnu or an eland will be standing just by the track as your little train goes by, paying no more attention to you than he does to the rhinoceros trundling by a few yards in the other direction. Of course these animals are happy — no work, no fear, no competition, no constraints, and a relentless encouragement by the park authorities for them to have as much sex as they can stand. I suspect that a good many of the passengers in the monorail cars would be delighted to change places with them.
Happy, too, are the baby animals being taken care of back in Nairobi Village, where you may see them being coddled, loved, played with and fed. A couple of teen-age girls, employees of the park, give them their food, and the girls seemed as happy to be giving the food as the animals were to be getting it. The girls were equally loving to the beautiful little gazelles, frantically wagging their tails as they sucked from baby bottles, and to the great fat dopey lump of a baby rhinoceros, a creature I would have thought only a mama rhinoceros could love. There is also a baby giraffe, affectionate as a puppy, and a baby orangutan, curled up happily in a crib with baby rattles, security blanket, and diaper.
Whenever I go to a zoo I find myself being amazed that wild animals should exist at all. We don't need them, they play no part in our economic lives, and if zoos were to disappear the great majority of us would cease to be aware that there are such creatures in the world. Our religions tell us that the whole universe was created for us and our use, and for someone who finds it hard to get away from that kind of thinking it seems proper to wonder “Just what are these springboks and lesser flamingos for?" (It is a question our species is much more reluctant to ask about itself.)
The San Diego Zoological Society knows the answer, and so do those happy girls hugging the gazelles and caressing the rhino-pup. The animals exist for the same reason we do — simply to be, and to enjoy themselves, and the world, and each other. It is a very lucky thing to exist at all, if you come to think about it. I'm sure that rhinoceroses don't think about it, and don't need to. But I do, and I know that my own existence and happiness are immeasurably enhanced by the existence of all these other beings, so different from me and so much like me, so interesting, so various, and so beautiful.
It is the beauty of these animals that remains as my strongest impression of them. Why, after all, would the theatre and fine arts editor of this paper, otherwise concerned with Shakespeare plays and Stravinsky concertos, be impelled to “review" a wild animal park? The park itself is beautifully designed, both for the pleasure of its visitors and the fruitful and happy life of its animals; a zoo, seen from the proper perspective, is also a work of art. But what about the animals? Aren't they the most intricate and lovely works of art? The zebra's psychedelic stripes, the impala's lyre-shaped horns, the perfectly functional grace, or solidity, or harmoniousness of dozens of other creatures of the wild. How beautifully’— how aesthetically they are designed. And there isn't even a designer.