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Wide-Eyed Look at San Diego Zoo : From child's perspective, ferns tower like giant redwoods and peacocks cast shadows as they pass.

August 16, 1992|JUDITH MORGAN

Over the years, I have observed the San Diego Zoo from many vantage points. I have walked its misted garden paths on winter mornings, and tiptoed behind scenes with keepers at twilight. I have relished sun-splashed, double-deck bus tours, and gala private parties staged on a summer's night.

I have soared over the 100-acre park in a Skyfari gondola, and perched on bleachers to watch dog-and-pony shows.

But never had I seen the zoo from the bottom up until I followed a fleet-footed guide who was 34 inches tall.

It's a different world down there, I learned; the altered perspective is amazing.

Imagine ferns that spread over your head like giant redwoods, and peacocks that cast shadows as they pass. Imagine the growl of a tiger or the cackle of a macaw when you can't see the source.

The child who showed me the way was Matthew Albert Blakely Boggess, my 2-year-old nephew from Dallas.

Matthew approached the zoo at two paces: a full dash, which was most of the time, and the somewhat slower speed when he rode in a zoo rental stroller.

Accompanied by his vacationing parents--and armloads of film and supplies--we began with a 45-minute narrated bus tour.

Matthew's attention was immediately in demand.

"Giraffes," cried his father, hoisting the child toward the sun. "Can you say giraffe ?"

"Elephants!" said his mother, pointing in the other direction.

"Can you say elephant ?"

"Light!" responded Matthew with glee, pointing to a tiny bulb in the bus ceiling. "Light. Light. Light."

We climbed to another landscaped mesa.

"Bears," said his father happily, waving to an Alaskan brown bear named Spanky. "Can you wave to the bears?"

"Peacock," said his mother. "See the pretty peacock?"

"Plane," said Matthew, pointing up as a jet passed on its approach to Lindbergh Field, "in the sky!"

After the bus tour, we headed for the Children's Zoo. While his parents paused to admire shrimp-pink flamingos, Matthew chased a dozen baby chicks that were trying to cross the road. They were small enough to be part of his world, but, luckily, they escaped.

My sister was enchanted by a tumble of guinea pigs. ("Look, Matthew. You have guinea pigs in your book.") My brother-in-law, the lawyer, was reading every word on every display and, naturally, had a few questions.

The 2-year-old ignored them both and stared at common pigeons who were nibbling spilled popcorn. He splashed in a tiny puddle near the base of a drinking fountain. He peeked between fence railings and said: "Flower!"

I knelt to share his view.

Matthew was happiest in the petting corral, a large pen where brown goats and wart hogs and kids run free, and adults take up dueling with video cameras.

"Pat his head , Matthew," my sister urged as he grabbed a goat by the tail. " Arrggh . Get the baby wipes."

At the gorilla exhibit, while grown-ups in funny hats scanned the grassy hill, Matthew hugged a bronze sculpture of an ape. He gave a high-five to a gorilla hand mounted on a display.

"Gorilla," said his mother.

"Monkey," insisted Matthew.

His father laughed.

We followed a rope ramp to a jungle glade where orangutans were staring soulfully from just a few inches away.

"Orangutan," said Matthew's father in awe.

"Monkey," said Matthew.

His mother laughed.

We lasted four happy hours--including a gift shop foray for T-shirts and a paperback copy of a zoo history called "It Began With a Roar!" which would answer my brother-in-law's questions.

Throughout the world I have visited zoos and found surprising pleasures. In Singapore, one sultry morning, I escaped the city to have breakfast with an orangutan in, perhaps, the world's tidiest zoo. He ate bananas and mangoes. I had bananas and coffee.

In New Orleans, one steamy August during a political convention, I caught a streetcar to the zoo and shared a lazy afternoon with wily crocodiles who pretended to be asleep on a muddy riverbank. At the Budapest Zoo, on a Sunday in spring, dozens of families in fancy dress turned up to celebrate school graduation. There were impromptu folk dances.

Whether in London or Sydney, Chicago or the Bronx, a zoo offers visitors more than rare animals and plants; it's a chance to join people at play.

Yet, even in such idyllic settings, reminders of urban ills may creep in. At the San Diego Zoo's petting corral, a keeper cautioned my brother-in-law: "You'd better take your wallet and map out of your hip pocket in here."

"Pardon?" asked the gentleman from Texas.

"The goats will eat anything that's paper."

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