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Inside the Icon: San Diego Zoo

Lions, tigers, and bears, plus pandas, flamingos, and more—oh, my! This year, the world-renowned institution celebrates its centennial.


San Diego Zoo | Photo by Corbis Super RF/Alamy

Visit the Icon 

2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park

A Roaring Start

In September 1916, local physician Dr. Harry Wegeforth drove past Balboa Park with his brother when he heard the roar of a lion, one of the animals left in small cages and entrusted to the city from the 1915–1916 Panama-California Exposition. He said to his brother: “Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo? I think I’ll start one.” The next month, the Wegeforth brothers and three local colleagues formed the Zoological Society of San Diego, which began caring for animals left behind from the Exposition.


Land Of Opportunity

In 1921, the Board of Park Commissioners for the City of San Diego granted the land in Balboa Park for the zoo. That same year, Ellen Browning Scripps donated $9,000 for a fence to mark the zoo’s boundaries, making it possible to charge 10 cents admission when it was completed in January 1923.


Buckle Up

One of the zoo’s first animals was a one-year-old brown bear, who had been living as a mascot aboard a Navy ship. Given her increasing size and strength, the sailors decided to donate her to the then-new zoo. Without a truck to transport animals, the acting director sat the cub in the front seat of his roadster.


By The Numbers

The 100-acre zoo cares for more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals, representing 660 species and subspecies. To date, the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy has successfully reproduced more than 165 endangered species and reintroduced more than 40 species.


A Genetic Ark

Since 1972, researchers have been forming a genetic library known as the Frozen Zoo, a branch of the San Diego Global Wildlife Conservancy. The collection includes cell cultures from more than 9,000 individuals across 1,000 species. The scientists focus on stem cell conservation, genome research, and more.


In The Spotlight

Episodes of Perry Mason, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, and even Keeping Up with the Kardashians have filmed at the zoo, while some of its animals have appeared as extras in films, including camels in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.


Coming Attractions

The zoo’s most ambitious project to date, Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks, which will transform a canyon into replicated African habitats, is set to debut next year. Incoming new animal exhibits will include baboons, lemurs, ibex antelope, and a colony of African penguins.


Party Animal

Wish the zoo a happy 100th with other animal lovers May 14 at Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Festivities include music, a (hopefully) record-breaking group roar, and more.

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