Zoo’s new ‘Basecamp’ exhibit opens; officials hope it is launch pad for conservation

Here, kids don’t just see zoo animals, they get to be like them.

They can scramble over boulders like the prairie dogs on the other side of the mesh fence. They get to run around a replica ancient oak tree and climb across a rope bridge and platform, similar to what squirrel monkeys do.

And they can see a real pink axolotl, a critically endangered salamander that gamer-savvy kids probably know as a character in Minecraft.

Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, San Diego Zoo’s newest and most expensive exhibit, sits on the same spot where the old Children’s Zoo used to be. But it’s worlds away.

And it opens Friday.

Two naked mole-rats touch noses at San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The basecamp is a sprawling mix of indoor and outdoor areas on a 3.2-acre site, providing double the habitat space of the Children’s Zoo. It showcases four different habitat zones — desert dunes, a rainforest, wild woods and marsh meadows — with one building dedicated to invertebrates and another for reptiles, amphibians and fish.

There’s no official count, but curators estimate the basecamp is home to more than 100 mammals and birds, 50 reptiles and amphibians, 200 to 300 fish, and thousands of invertebrates from leafcutter ants to spiders.

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In addition to the animal habitats, the basecamp offers several play areas designed to give visitors, especially children, a sense of what it would feel like to be the animals they see in the exhibits.

“We have a boulder scramble right next to the prairie dogs, the fennec fox and our burrowing owls — so kids can see the animals climb on the rocks and then they can climb on the rocks. We joke it is ‘monkey see, monkey do,’” said Nicki Boyd, curator of applied behavior.

Andrew Sullivan, a senior arborist, plums a Puriri tree at San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

Andrew Sullivan, a senior arborist, plums a Pūriri tree at San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is just over three acres and cost $88 million to build.

The San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is just over three acres and cost $88 million to build.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the wild woods area, visitors can explore more boulders and a water play area, where they can be doused by water spouts and dash under a waterfall near a walking path. Dryers are available.

Officials said they wanted to give young explorers a chance to engage in “parallel play” with animals — with the goal of building empathy for wildlife. Child development experts consulted during the design process encouraged zoo planners to have children see the world from the animals’ perspectives.

“We know that if you can put youths next to wildlife so they feel like they are experiencing the same thing, it will create a greater interconnection,” said Paul Baribault, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “That’s powerful — that’s powerful in terms of how we can inspire that next generation to care more.”

Planners called the new exhibit a “basecamp” because they hope it will serve as a jumping off point for future conservation.

“It is an experience for guests to go in and interact with countless animals and plants in this space, to be inspired by what’s possible,” Baribault said. “The thing that makes this so important for us as we look forward is that next generation of wildlife explorers. This is a launching pad for them.”

Paige Howorth, McKinney family curator of invertebrates

Paige Howorth, McKinney Family curator of invertebrates, points to an insect while giving a tour of San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Golden Orb Weaver at San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

A Golden Orb Weaver at San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Baribault said it is difficult to compare the basecamp to other exhibits. “This is about trying to create more interactive opportunities, and really understand more how we can best impact and influence youth perception about the future and where they fit in.”

With a price tag of $88 million, raised from more than 3,700 donors, the exhibit is the most expensive in San Diego Zoo history. Donors included Denny Sanford, who gave $30 million, Ernest and Evelyn Rady, the McKinney family and the Conrad Prebys Foundation as well as others.

It replaces the original Children’s Zoo, which opened in 1957 and in recent years featured a petting paddock with sheep, goats and other farm animals and a play structure.

Sanford’s donation raised questions after ProPublica reported in 2020 that he was under investigation for possible possession of child pornography. Zoo officials have said no charges have come out of the investigation. In a statement issued last fall, the zoo said: “Denny Sanford has been, and continues to be, one of our organization’s greatest supporters… He has not been charged, and we continue to value our long relationship with him and remain grateful for the impact he has had on our organization.”

Planning for the space began more than seven years ago, with curators working with architects and designers to provide input, with each channeling their own inner child. Paige Howorth, the McKinney family curator of invertebrates, remembers using her son’s Legos, Play Doh and even a stalk of broccoli to model some ideas.

As opening day drew near, workers were busy fine-tuning the space.

Deer grass plants were replaced in the prairie dog enclosure after the animals dug up and ate the first ones planted. In the ocelot enclosure, a eucalyptus limb used as a walkway by the aging cat was wrapped in rope to provide a better grip. A large Puriri tree, replanted after being boxed up since the old Children’s Zoo closed, needed pruning. A slippery spot on a metal staircase got a coating of non-slip surfacing.

The rainforest section of the new exhibit includes a two-story, 10,000-square-foot building filled with insects, spiders and other invertebrate.

A splash pad with fog at San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

A splash pad with fog at San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The entrance to the Spineless Marvels building is designed to feel like an open field, with colorful images of flying butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies projected across the ceiling. A light floral scent wafts in the air.

“When you come in you’re getting like a floral meadow scent and it’s intended to be… a gentle entry into the space,” Howorth said on a tour last week. “We know people have some feelings about insects and so we want this to be a way for them to kind of lay that down.”

Sound is included in many of the immersive displays. Visitors to the two-story leafcutter ant habitat can hear soothing music mixed with chirping noises made when ants rub two body parts together.

The invertebrate building — which includes about 7,500-square-feet of experience space — is far larger than the 1,500-square-foot structure that showcased insects in the old Children’s Zoo. Howorth said the larger space is proportional to the number of insects in the world and reflects heightened concern over their future.

“I think it is reflecting an awareness,” she said. “We have been hearing a lot more about the catastrophic declines of insects. I feel like people are listening now — and this is intended to be a space where you walk away from it understanding.”

Children can imagine themselves as bees in an area that highlights pollinators. It features a giant beeswax-fragrant honeycomb and a bee balcony where honey bees buzz around four hives. In a downstairs space, visitors get a close-up view of orb weaver spiders spinning intricate webs on metal frames.

Nearby is an alcove where visitors will eventually be able to walk among free-flying butterflies.

In another habitat zone — the marsh meadows area — visitors can find outdoor tanks filled with fish, turtles and crocodiles leading to the Cool Critters building, a 7,000-square-foot space for reptiles, amphibians and fish.

A Lubber Grasshopper at San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

A Lubber Grasshopper at San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kim Gray, curator of herpetology and ichthyology, said children typically love reptiles and amphibians but interest tends to waver once they become adults. She hopes the new space, combined with efforts of education staff and volunteer,s will change that.

“It is hard to fundraise for them, it is hard to get people caring about them and passionate about saving them,” Gray said.

As guests enter the lower level of the building they’ll find LED ceiling lighting designed to look like a stream. Visitors can find creatures that live in and around water, including lung fish, Chinese giant salamanders and a caiman lizard “that has teeth that look like our molars and they eat snails,” Gray said.

Upstairs is the reptile egg incubation room and animal-care kitchen where educators will discuss how the zoo cares for reptiles and helps them in the wild, including endangered Fijian iguanas. There’s also a display area, developed in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where visitors can learn about wildlife trafficking and see items that have been confiscated.

The zoo uses technology, including microscopes that project images onto screens and touch screens tied to games and puzzles, to teach guests more about the animals and their habitats.

Zoo officials expect the pink axolotl will be a big hit with kids.

“We have this unique salamander that stays in larval form its whole life,” Gray said. “They lose a toe, they can regrow them — and we can talk about how cool they are. It just happens they have this adorable pink weird look to them and kids adore them.”

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