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Sustainability Key To New Exhibits At San Diego Zoo

Photo by Erik Anderson

The front gate at the San Diego Zoo on Apr. 22. 2021.

The southeast corner of the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park is bustling with activity. Construction crews have been busy working on a major renovation of the old children’s zoo that began in 2019.

Two nearby enclosures are also expected to open this summer, a walkthrough hummingbird habitat and a new enclosure for Komodo dragons.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson

Hummingbirds thrive in San Diego but don’t exist in many parts of the world. The new habitat offers people a chance to see the birds up close.

The zoo's curator of birds David Rimlinger says San Diego is among only a handful of zoos that keep hummingbird collections.

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“I think hummingbirds are one of those few birds, like a penguin, that even if you’ve never seen one you know that it’s a hummingbird,” Rimlinger said.

Keeping the birds on display for the public requires work.

“They’re not an easy species to keep,” Rimlinger said. “They eat more often than any other type of bird. They feed mainly on nectar. That has to be replenished twice a day. And fruit flies. We raise fruit flies for them to eat, especially when they’re raising babies.”

The inside of the habitat features a walkway for guests, ponds and green walls, where plants are attached to the side of stone-like walls.

A large stone feature in the center of the display breaks up the exhibit allowing keepers to keep more of the territorial birds in a small space.

Photo by Erik Anderson

Construction worker getting the walkway ready for cement outside the new hummingbird exhibit at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park on Apr. 22, 2021.

And some of the exhibits's outside walls use translucent plastic to help control the environment inside the habitat.

“The E.T.F.E. pillows we call them, are double layer with air in between and so that also helps us regulate the thermal control in the environment,” said Vanessa Nevers, an architect at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

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The enclosures were designed to take advantage of San Diego’s unique environment as part of the sustainability theme underpinning all major projects at the zoo.

“A sustainable design is becoming more prevalent and much more common practice in a lot of areas,” Nevers said.

The sustainability discussion was underway long before the first shovel cut into the earth and it was a process that took everything into account.

“What we’ve done now, versus years ago, we’ve boxed trees. We safely put them in a location so we can bring them back in,” said Eamon Farrell, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance construction manager. “And with the demolition, instead of loading it all in and taking it off, we separate it into concrete, glass steel. We take the time to do that. That’s all recyclable and we send it to a source close by.”

The designers, builders, and keepers all got together early on to discuss what the new habitats would need to serve the animals housed there.

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For the Komodo dragons, heat is important.

“You can tell it's a little bit overcast today, a little bit cooler temperatures,” said herpetology and ichthyology curator Kim Gray. “In Indonesia, it might not be this cool so we might let them spend more time indoors in a nice warm environment.”

Heat rocks, infrared lights and even the natural environment will help keep the large lizards toasty.

There are separate indoor areas, outdoor space and a nesting area in the back. Gray says that’ll give the Komodo Dragons a choice.

“So these habitats give them the opportunity to be together or not depending on the animals and the time of year and if they’re breeding or not,” Gray said.

The new habitats require integrated systems, that according to Farrell, could be operated by a smartphone. That masks the underlying challenge of making the habitats efficient and easy to operate.

“The challenging part is the complexity,” Farrell said. “It's not just four walls and a roof, we’ve done this before. Let’s just repeat that construction process. No, we’re dealing with live animals and they all have different needs. And the collection is very dear to us.”

The hummingbird and Komodo exhibits are scheduled to open to the public this summer.

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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