Must-See Animals at the San Diego Zoo

Head to San Diego for a spectacular viewing of elephants, cheetahs, and more!

Cheetahs lounging in the grass at San Diego Zoo, picture
The San Diego Zoo, which turned 100 in 2016, is open daily.
Liz Stepanoff / Shutterstock

The world-famous San Diego Zoo began life more than 100 years ago with the roar of a lion left behind after the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition at Balboa Park. Today, the zoo and its Safari Park boast some incredible animal residents. 


Cheetahs are fast but not necessarily confident. To help the spotted sprinters adjust to an environment with a lot of commotion, zookeepers pair them with domestic dogs, whose body language communicates calm. The zoo is home to several such odd couples, among them Miley, a female husky mix, and Bakka, a male South African cheetah.

baby elephant Umzula-zuli born August 2018 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Southern California, picture

The herd's newest member, Umzula-zuli, was born on August 12, 2018, World Elephant Day. 

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Global


On August 12, 2018, World Elephant Day, mother elephant Ndulamitsi gave birth to a healthy male calf, Umzula-zuli. Weighing 270 pounds, Umzula-zuli is the largest elephant born in the zoo's Safari Park. Thanks to the baby's arrival, the herd now includes 13 elephants. 

Galapagos tortoise in trancelike state at the San Diego Zoo, Southern California, picture

A Galapagos tortoise pauses in a post-rub, trancelike state.

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Global

Galápagos Tortoises

It's a life of leisure for the zoo's 13 Galápagos tortoises, which lumber about on stumpy feet, munching prickly pear pads and wallowing in mud. The leathery skin on these toothless herbivores, several of which are centenarians that arrived at the zoo in 1928, is surprisingly sensitive: While in the zookeeper-monitored "contact zone," gently rub a tortoise's neck and watch it fall into a trancelike state.

Giant panda Bai Yun relaxing at the San Diego Zoo, Southern California, picture

Giant panda Bai Yun, mother of six, takes it easy.

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Global

Giant Pandas

Four U.S. zoos shelter giant pandas, but only one is home to mama bear extraordinaire Bai Yun, the most prolific giant panda in captivity outside China. Middle-aged at 24, the mother of six (and one of three giant pandas at the zoo) has earned the right to relax: Bai Yun enjoys climbing elm trees and curling up in her hammock but may surprise visitors with a somersault.

Sumatra orangutan, Karen, at the San Diego Zoo, Southern California, picture

Karen, a Sumatra orangutan, had life-saving heart surgery in 1992.

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Global


Karen the Sumatran orangutan perks up around zookeeper Mike Bates. Born with a life-threatening hole in her heart, Karen in 1994 became the first ape to undergo open-heart surgery. With her recovery touch and go, a concerned Bates spent sleepless nights rocking Karen to sleep under an oxygen tent. At the orangutan-viewing window, visitors can go nose to nose with Karen, now fully recovered, rambunctious, and inquisitive. And don't miss little Aisha, the zoo's youngest orangutan, who is often found swinging from ropes and cuddling with her mom, Indah.

koala baby and mother at the San Diego Zoo, Southern California, picture

The San Diego Zoo was the first in the U.S. to welcome a baby koala.

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Global


The zoo's current colony of 25 koalas is the largest outside Australia. One, 9-year-old Burley, with his ridiculously cute face and a people-friendly temperament unusual for his species, is a popular animal ambassador for the zoo and has appeared on many TV talk shows with his keepers. He usually flies in a climate-controlled cargo area, tucked inside an animal carrier, with an in-flight meal of tender eucalyptus leaves. Should you spot him at the airport, don't be alarmed by his low-pitched bellow. The marsupial is just excited to travel.

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This article was first published in March 2016 and last updated in September 2018.