(Someone please convince me that now is not the time to attempt switching over to wordpress. God damn it blogger.)
I feel guilty about loving zoos so much. Even in the good ones, you see a lot of stereotypic behaviours (pacing, weaving, head bobbing, etc). And no matter how much paint you use or enrichment items you toss in, a moated enclosure is never going to feel like an ice floe. On the other hand, there are at least a dozen species who would be gone already if not for captive breeding programs (most recently, they reintroduced the Przewalski's horse after being extinct in the wild for thirty years, this makes me so happy), and having big charismatic vertebrates up close where the general public can see them is crucial to convincing people to care about conservation.
The SD Zoo is one of the good ones, though. They've got a ridiculously diverse collection of species, and for the most part the enclosures are very well done. The kiwis have an entire building to themselves - the interior is dark, lit just enough to simulate moonlight and encourage activity. There are several massive aviaries, with tiered walkways allowing visitors to see how different birds prefer different levels of the canopy. Loads and loads of interactive educational materials all over (which in itself is a little depressing - the animals aren't enough of a draw for kids, we have to give them playgrounds to engage them?) I was surprised by how small some of the enclosures were though, and how many of those there were. The serval had an area hardly any larger than the one in the Valley Zoo, and when you're inviting comparisons with the Valley Zoo there's problems. That said, even the smallest enclosures were well done - but with the zoo's reputation, I hadn't expected there to be any of that type at all.
It took me six hours to walk around the entire thing (tour buses are for the weak). It's divided into half a dozen zones (outback, savannah, jungle, etc) and each zone has its own cafe and giftshop, in addition to the main giftshop at the front gates. There are two full time restaurants on the grounds and food carts every fifty feet, because god forbid you miss an opportunity to spend money. Some of it feels like overkill, but all in all it's pretty impressive, and they've made some amazing contributions to species conservation. Most importantly, they have okapi.