Image: CARAVAN
 Ken Bohn  /  Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
This photo caravan encounters a couple of curious giraffes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 11/8/2010 3:23:35 PM ET 2010-11-08T20:23:35

Whatever you do, don't stick your hand in the rhino's mouth.

That's important advice when you're feeding four gigantic rhinos apple slices, their mouths wide open awaiting every bite. It seems we can see all the way down into their pink throats. It's hard to believe that these huge creatures — they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds — can run as fast as 30 miles an hour. We're especially taken with baby Bandhu, the greater one-horned rhinoceros, born May 18, 2009.

No, we're not in Africa or India. But it sure feels like we could be at the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park, located about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego near Escondido.

We're riding in a truck on a photo caravan into the heart of the large animal enclosures, which means, as we bump along, we get up close to not only the rhinos (Southern white, as well as greater one-horned) but also the giraffes (try feeding leaves to two giraffes at once!), Springbok, Cape buffalo, ostrich, Defassa Waterbuck, zebras and more. We see a lion lolling on top of a safari-type vehicle — his personal lounger, we're told.

Everywhere we look there are baby animals. "It seems there's one born almost every day," says our guide Rachel Bodman. We come across a gaggle of giraffes, including two babies just a month or so old and two more less than six months old. It is an amazing sight. "The giraffes and rhinos were my favorite," declares a delighted 8 year old, Mia Ciccarelli, visiting from Massachusetts.

Hanna Ciccarelli, Mia's aunt, looks out at the giraffes. "You can't really call this a zoo," she says.

That's the idea, of course. This is a bona-fide adventure designed to give you the experience of seeing these animals in their natural habitats — there are more than 3,000 here representing some 375 species on land that spreads out over 1,800 acres.

Soar over the animals on a zip line 160 feet above the ground. Stay overnight in a tent overlooking the plains of "East Africa," the Safari Park's largest field exhibit and home to giraffes, antelope, rhino and more. Fly above the park in a Balloon Safari or head to the "Petting Kraal" where the littlest in your gang can touch and feed the antelope. Get up close and personal with all kinds of bugs during the Creepy Crawly festival (ready to pet a cockroach?) that goes on weekends until mid-November. There is also a special Family Caravan, lasting only an hour — ideal for younger children.

It's easy to see why so many families come to San Diego specifically to visit the Zoo and Safari Park — 40 percent of visitors are from outside California — as well as other first-rate family attractions like Sea World and Legoland. For more on San Diego visit www.sandiego.org for affordable hotel deals like the "Hassle-Free Holiday" from Omni for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Rates start at just $129 per room.

A visit to the Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo — the most visited zoo in the country with some 3.4 million visitors a year, another 1.5 million to the Safari Park — is a lot more than seeing the pandas (the zoo has the largest population of giant pandas in the country), feeding a baby giraffe or watching an elephant get a pedicure (the 7.5 acre Elephant Odyssey at the zoo is the first habitat of its kind). Kids love the interactive area where they can play with oversized elephant tracking collars and work a bone puzzle. Or you can just observe.

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"Some people sit on the benches and watch the elephants for hours," says zookeeper Victoria Girdler.

The San Diego Zoo's long-held mission is conservation, and the hope is that by facilitating such experiences at both locales, children and their parents will better understand why we should all do our part to help these animals survive and thrive.

Take one of the zoo's most popular exhibits Polar Bear Plunge, which has been re-worked to offer visitors the chance to get closer to the huge bears, as well as to gain a better understanding of the impact climate change is having on them. As the ice melts, we learn, the bears have less and less habitat.

Run your hands over a model that shows just how little ice there is for the polar bear, compared to just 30 years ago. Scary! Kids can try "hunting" like a polar bear, stepping and jumping from one ice floe to another, crawling through a replica of a polar bear den and even climbing into a research helicopter. Crowd on the giant scale and see how many of you it will take to come close to the weight of an adult bear — some 1,500 pounds.

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"Kids are going to be the stewards of our planet and it's important for them to understand their role in this, and that they can make a difference," says JoAnne Simerson, the senior keeper primarily responsible for caring for the zoo's three polar bears: Kalluk, Tatqiq and Chinook.

It's always wise to start your exploration on the zoo's website before you visit. Learn about the animals, play games (there is an online area just for kids) take a virtual tour and even calculate your own carbon footprint. Consider special activities and tours — zoo art classes where you can learn from professional artists how to draw wildlife, a behind-the-scenes tour of Elephant Odyssey, special "Kinder Programs" for the littlest zoo goers (ages 3 to 6) and more. Download "101 Things to Discover" while visiting the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. (How many body parts can you name on a bird? What part of the plant is the animal eating? What plants do you eat? Why is it important for animals to play, like kids do?)

"There are no right or wrong answers," says Victoria Garrison, the zoo's director of education.

Back at the Safari Park, meanwhile, until the bucket is empty we toss the apple pieces right into the rhinos' gaping mouths like pros.

And not one finger gets stuck.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2010 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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