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6 Unique, Must-See Animals and Exhibitions at the San Diego Zoo

May 10, 2023 By CityPASS

If you want to take a walk on the wild side when you visit San Diego, a trip to the zoo is a must. The San Diego Zoo is the zoo with the most annual visitors in the United States and is home to 4,000 creatures from more than 650 animal species around the globe. This zoo is part of the San Diego Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation efforts and preservation. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an outdoor adventure park that simulates an African safari, is also a part of this nonprofit.

There are several different themed habitats across the park’s 100 acres. To help you cover a zoo this size, here are some tips for seeing the best San Diego Zoo animals. The following are six wild creatures and exhibits you don't want to miss when you visit the San Diego Zoo.

Make Sure To Stop By These 6 San Diego Zoo Animal Exhibits

Because the zoo is so large and home to so many interesting and amazing critters, there are some handy tricks to help you see many of the animals at San Diego Zoo. For example, the zoo offers a guided bus tour to guests that covers about 75% of the park. Another fun way to get around and see the unique animals at San Diego Zoo is by hopping on Skyfari, a gondola lift that stretches across the zoo. From here, you can get a bird’s eye view of all the incredible wild animals below.

While you can see typical zoo animals like gorillas, rhinos, giraffes, and lions, there are plenty that you’ve probably never encountered before.

1. Pygmy Hippos

Make your way to the Lost Forest to glimpse the pint-sized pygmy hippo, the first wild wonder on our list. This habitat is based on the Ituri Forest and is home to various African species living in the rainforests of central Africa. These little hippos don't spend as much time in the water compared to their full-sized counterparts, so you probably won’t find them swimming in the river. During the day, the pygmy hippos like to lay in the sand, but they become more active at night when they can roam around, while the monkeys they share their habitat with, are inside for the evening.

2. Clouded Leopards

Next, you should check out the clouded leopard, one of the San Diego Zoo's most famous animals. It serves as an animal ambassador of the zoo and is often featured on TV appearances and in the media. The San Diego Zoo also offers special experiences, like animal interactions and tours, for an additional cost that gets you up close with some of the coolest creatures in the zoo, including the clouded leopard.

Native to Southeast Asia, these elusive cats are masters at hiding and are quite big for being a small cat species. This animal is so mysterious because it’s threatened in the wild, and most of what we know about it comes from watching its behavior in the zoo. They’re a fan favorite of those who can spot them playing together or taking a restful snooze in their habitat.

3. Red Pandas

Until 2019, the San Diego Zoo had a giant panda breeding program, and visitors could see them in the Panda Canyon exhibit. As of 2019, all of the giant pandas have been sent to China for conservation, but you can still see some cute and cuddly red pandas, another species native to China and elsewhere in Asia. Much smaller than giant pandas, these critters have fox-like bright red fur and a body similar to a raccoon’s. You’ll probably spot the red panda sunbathing high up in the treetops or snacking on some bamboo on the forest floor.

4. Tree Kangaroos

Check out the zoo’s tree kangaroos to see a creature you’ve probably never laid eyes on before. Hard to spot and quick on its feet, the Matschie’s tree kangaroo is native to the Houn Peninsula of New Guinea and spends its days in the treetops of the cloud forests. Even though they are excellent climbers and jumpers, these marsupials spend more than half their time sleeping in the trees.

Like Australian kangaroos, tree ‘roos carry their joeys in their pouch for up to 10 months. They snack on all kinds of plants and leaves. This species is quite small, weighing only 22 pounds, so you might have trouble spotting it. These animals have a thick coat of reddish fur that helps them blend in with their habitat.

5. Vervet Monkeys

The Acacia Woodland exhibit is home to a troop of vervet monkeys, small primates with green and brown fur. With small black faces, big eyes, and white eyebrows, these colorful little guys also have blue skin on their abdomen that’s more predominant in males.

Because of their small size, they make a tasty meal for larger forest predators. To survive, they’ve become quite good at quickly climbing trees to escape danger. They love sleeping high in the trees to stay safe but can move quickly on the ground. Vervet monkeys are very social and like to spend their time grooming and playing together.

6. African and Asian Elephants

No trip to the zoo is complete without seeing the elephants. The San Diego Zoo is home to a herd of Asian and African elephants. You’ll find them in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit, which includes a mix of other animals from Central and South America. These gentle giants are some of the most popular animals at the zoo for visitors of all ages.

If you want to learn more about them, stop by the Elephant Care Center to see the zoo’s wildlife care specialists in action. They perform tasks like cleaning, health checks, or simple observations. You can ask the wildlife care specialists any questions you have about elephants and discover more about their daily routines.

Visit San Diego's Best Attractions for Less

If you want to see more of San Diego for less, purchasing a San Diego CityPASS® ticket does just that. Buying this bundled ticket gets you into five of the city’s top attractions — like the San Diego Zoo — at discounted prices. By purchasing a San Diego CityPASS® ticket, you could save up to compared to buying individual tickets to these same attractions.

San Diego Lodging

To get the most out of your stay in San Diego, we recommend finding lodging near San Diego's top attractions. Use this map to find the right lodging for you:

Header Image Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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