Friday, May 11, 2012

San Diego Zoo Garden Festival: May 10-13, 2012

Spring is in the air and the San Diego Zoo is once again celebrating with the annual Garden Festival. In addition to all of the regular goings on around the zoo, during the Garden Festival, there are interactive booths, crafts, food sampling, and educational bonuses that make really open your eyes to the fact that the zoo isn't just about animals. I was invited to take the VIP Bugs & Blooms Tour (2 tours per day, $69 per person, Reserve Tickets Here), so I borrowed my four year old niece (tour is limited to ages 4+) and we made our way to the zoo. More after the jump.

This is how the tour is described on the Zoo's website:
Enjoy a rare opportunity to meet with the Zoo’s insect and horticulture experts during this specially themed Inside Look Tour. This adventure includes a tour of our insect house, up-close encounters with some fascinating bugs, a private-cart tour of the Zoo that focuses on our amazing plant collection, a fun propagation activity, and a chance to chat and ask questions about your own garden with an expert!
I didn't know quite what we were in for, but I jump on any opportunity to see the zoo behind the scenes, especially escorted around on their stretch golf cart with a private tour guide. After last year's Garden Festival tour and doing summer camp with Johanna at the Safari Park, this one seemed like another cool opportunity.

The tour started in the Children's zoo. We briefly learned about composting before checking out the bug house (which I'd never seen before). There's a massive live ant colony that is fascinating to watch, as well as an active bee hive where the bees can access the outside (as some smarty pants 12 year old had to inform me. "Where else would they get the pollen?" duh.) The expert gave us some quick information about bees, told us an anecdote about how bees are physically transported by truck because there aren't enough bees to pollinate almonds among many other things. "If people really knew the truth about bees, people would be a lot more freaked out about the future."

Johanna seemed to be particularly fascinated by spiders and tarantulas, which was great because we got to go in this super secret room where they house off display animals like tarantulas. Apparently most of the animals in this room are confiscations from people trying to smuggle and then sell the creatures on the black market. In this room, there was a Goliath Birdeater tarantula from South America, which is the largest spider species in the world. Not a spider you wanna see on your wall at 2 am.

We went into another back area where a team was prepping lunch for the animals of the Children's Zoo. A specialist brought out some massive insects- a katydid and a stick insect, both about the length of her hand. The kids were all fascinated, with a little girl asking, "What happens if you step on one?" and the expert saying, "Well, it would be pretty crunchy and gooey." There were also more tarantulas in the room that kept drawing Johanna's attention and some carnivorous plants. We asked if they would eat, so we actually got to see a Venus Fly Trap close up on a cricket. Pretty cool.

From there, Robyn drove us around the zoo in some back areas, pointing out that the Zoo has over 280 endangered plant species that it has worked to save. We looped down past a new berry garden that was planted and then up and around near the skyfari, past the temporary koala exhibit, on the backside of Elephant Odyssey. The female cheetah just had two kittens, so she and they will be off exhibit for a couple months. We entered the back area of what is basically their garden center (where last year I learned out to fertilize an orchid). Here we learned about the symbiotic relationships some plants have with animals, like the Ant Plant with ants and figs with wasps. We got to look at wasp larvae under a microscope and before you ew, these are barely visible to the naked eye and exist in every fig you've ever eaten. The expert then explained that on any given day, a person injests dozens of bugs just by breathing.

We planted out own milkweed to take home, and the tour came to an end, dropping us back at the Children's Zoo in order to watch the Dr. Zoolittle show. We met up with my sister and Nadia, who was super excited to be there. Dr Zoolittle brought out some hissing cockroaches, a millipede, and then offered up some edible bugs. 2 year old Nadia had no qualms about eating a dried milkworm. I wish we could've stayed longer, but my sister had to get to work, so we decided it was time to go. On our way out, we stopped at a booth that had some cornbread with honey. Nadia tried some and made a lemon face. "That's disgusting!". Pretty funny considering she'd just eaten a bug.

I'd recommend this tour for parents with elementary school aged kids, especially those interested in growing their own gardens. Even if you don't drop the dough for a tour, the Garden Festival is really educational and offers an interesting new perspective on the zoo. As far as the tour goes, I thought seeing the confiscated arachnids was fascinating and seeing the giant bugs so close up was really cool, too. Mostly though, seeing a child's eyes light up when they get to touch or interact with any animal is pretty great, and when we left, Johanna asked, "When can I come back to camp with you, Tia Rose?"


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