The Zoo advertises high-profile animal exhibits like its panda, polar bear, tiger and gorilla exhibits in the same breathless way that nearby amusement parks (such as Disneyland) tout roller coasters. It uses the profits from its attractions to maintain the animals and support zoological education, science and conservation. For example, it maintains the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES), literally the last chance for many species.
The cool, sunny maritime climate is well suited to many plants and animals. Besides an extensive collection of birds, reptiles and mammals, it also maintains its grounds as an arboretum, with a rare plant collection. As part of its gardening effort, it raises some rare animal foods. For example, the Zoo raises bamboo for the pandas on long-term loan from China, and it maintains eucalyptus trees to feed its koalas.
It is sited on 47 acres in Balboa Park, on the edge of a mesa. The flat upland areas are the parking lot. Most exhibits are sited in cool, shaded valleys, with large aviaries and animal exhibits on the ridges. The zoo rotates larger animals to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and has some of the largest free-flight aviaries in existence to encourage breeding. Many exhibits are "natural" with invisible wires and darkened blinds (to view birds), and pools and open-air moats (for large mammals).
The Zoo is large enough so that it cannot be comfortably visited on foot in one day. The guided tour bus is strongly recommended for visitors with limited time, not least because the drivers are familiar with the animals. An overhead cable car is pleasant. Also, the Zoo provides society memberships for only a slight premium over the (steep) admission fees. Society memberships provide year-round re-entrance rights, guest passes and a subscription to the Zoo's magazine ZooNews.
In addition to its normal publicity efforts, and web page, the Zoo also produced a short TV program for a number of years, with Joan Embry. Joan Embry is the keeper who brought various animals to the Johnny Carson show. The Zoo loaned the animals.
The Zoo's food for humans is pleasant, fast, informal... health food, some of the best anywhere. There are persistent rumours that it was designed by veterinary nutritionists for human consumption, and goes through the same purchasing process.
The Zoo is private, and unlike government zoos it does not tolerate even accidental abuse of its animals. Visitors are commanded not to feed the animals and doing so can get one ejected. However, some exhibits are designed to let visitors feed animals approved foods from nearby vending machines. Visitors are politely commanded not to remove human food from the controlled restaurant and picnic areas, and can expect to be stopped by guards if they carry food around the zoo. Common conveniences like straws and caps for the cups are intentionally not provided in order to prevent harm to the animals.
The zoo is extremely active in conservation and species-preservation efforts. Its Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) raises and releases California Condors, Pandas, Tigers, African Black Rhinos and a large number of other endangered species. It employes numerous professional geneticists, cytologists and vertinarians, and maintains a cryopreservation facility for rare sperm and eggs.
The Zoo interns only selected graduates of the Veterinary College of the University of California at Davis. Its keepers are unionized.
The Zoo literally counts its animals as priceless. It carries the value of its animals and plants as zero dollars, which means they cannot be seized because of a bankruptcy, and could therefore be distributed to other zoos. All loans and encumbrances are on its land and vehicles.