Roars and snores on sleepover safari

Zoo overnight camps let you wake up to the call of the wild, without having to go to Africa.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The first rays of the morning sun glance off the top of our khaki tent, delivering that inimitable message of safari country: Expect withering heat. There is no morning quiet. A lusty, disorderly array of birdcalls speckle the aural landscape. Trilling cacaws, sawing hoots – it's as if their songs had been written by Mozart … or Philip Glass.

Suddenly one sound eclipses others – the roar of a lion. I nudge my 12-year-old, Matthew, in the sleeping bag next to me. This is what we've come for. How often in our lives are we going to hear a lion roar before breakfast?

Actually, it could be several times a year if we wanted, because we're just outside San Diego. Here, you'll find a great American tradition – the sleepover – in the setting of a remarkable Western institution – the zoo. We're part of a group of 45 who've come for "Roar and Snore," an overnight mingling with the menagerie of the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. The idea is simple – spend a night among the park's unique beasts, with the promise of secret knowledge that could never be had during the day. By its nature, the program targets families.

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Sleepovers at zoos, aquariums, and museums have sprung up all over in recent years. The Wild Animal Park's sleepover program began in 1994 and is one of the oldest in the nation, says operations manager Laura Choukri. It runs year-round, except in January. Weather canceled the sleepover just once, as did recent wildfires which caused damage from the blaze and closed operations for a week.

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Matthew and I arrive a couple of hours after the 4 p.m. start time. But our timing is perfect. We're heading in while day-visitors are filing out; going against the flow right away gives us a heady sense of being card-carrying members of the after-hours cognoscenti.

The program begins with the standard rite of an overnight stay – check-in. But the ordinary ends there. First, we're assigned a tent. An extra $30 – on top of the basic $129 per adult and $109 per child – has secured us a tent with a view. Perched on a small bluff by Kalima Point, it affords a splendid vista of gentle hills, where two giraffes tuck in to a leafy dinner, rhinos loaf nearby, and half a dozen gazelles stake out their position on a far slope.

We bring our own sleeping bags. The park offers a premium option that includes a double bed, wood floors, night stands, and a refrigerator – all tastefully arranged. But I scoffed at this, believing it would undermine the experience.

"They're always the first to sell out," Ms. Choukri tells me. She adds that a superpremium tent with its own bathroom is planned. I don't ask if it comes with a wide-screen TV and the director's cut of "Daktari," but roughing it is clearly not the attraction here.

We toss our sleeping bags in the tent and hurry to a buffet of lamb, grilled vegetables and couscous. Matthew focuses his gustatory energies on the chocolate chip cookies. By now, the sun has cloaked the valley in luxuriant russet. For a few moments, there are just the animals, the land, and the sky – I feel mercifully distant from freeways, homework, and "Hannah Montana."

An enthusiastic guide summons everyone for a dusk stroll. We're now officially alone in the park – no one but us and the beasts. OK, some security staff too, but certainly not the safety of numbers you get during the day (the park receives 2 million visitors annually). This might seem absurd, considering that animals remain in the exact same enclosures at night as in the day, but there's a qualitatively different feeling in the dark. Quiet. Eerie. Closer to, well, the wild. Let's face it, it was no accident that Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Hyde at night.

The walk is sort of a bedtime tour, although some creatures are just rising. We start with the lion camp. As we stand just 10 feet from a lioness (separated by glass of course), our guide rattles off feline factoids – their running speed (36 m.p.h.), hunting style (trapping, as at 36 m.p.h. they're too slow to run down their prey), and their threatened status (their population is down to 25,000).

The tour continues past the exhibit of a giant eland, a creature the size of a cow that can jump five feet high, and the diminutive bontebok, a cuddly looking gazelle that can't jump at all, a factor central to its extinction in the wild.

I sense an emerging theme. The park has many animals that are threatened, endangered, extinct in the wild, or on the verge of total extinction. The goal of the sleepover program, Ms. Choukri says, is to help people understand the challenges these species face, and "to get kids to care."

That evening, after more cookies and hot chocolate, we get a presentation about conservation from visiting members of the African Masai tribe. (This was part of collaborative effort of Conservation International and the Ol Donyo Wuas Trust to share how the Masai initiated a predator compensation plan to preserve lions. Some programs like these have sparked controversy because of what critics called the appearance of using the tribespeople as an exhibit in the park. Others counter that it would be a shame not to promote transnational programs that allow tribes to educate others and raise funds for themselves, as long as the visitors are being themselves and are not the target of the tourist gaze.)

Two hours later, Matthew and I trudge to our tent. "The lions will be roaring tonight," a staff member tells us. "Hope you sleep OK."

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For those who weren't awakened by the lions, a guide walks by with a squawk box 20 minutes before the 6:30 a.m. tour. The walk offers a dawn check-in with the lions, where the cubs are enjoying breakfast. A lioness strolls up to the viewing window and sits in striking profile – readier for her close up than Norma Desmond ever was. We get a last tour after our breakfast – a tram ride past exotic creatures from Africa. By the time we return, the park is coming to life for the day. We hear the rhythms of waking up: the hiss of sprinklers, employees reporting to work, and the roar of construction equipment. When the gates finally open, day-trippers quickly file in, and our intimate interlude is over.

Days later, I ask Matthew if the experience made him care more about animals. "Yeah," he says, and then adds, "Saving animals in a zoo is good," he adds, "Not destroying habitat is better."

Lions, keep roaring. Adults, be on notice – the next generation is paying close attention.

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