Tour guide Wendy Morihiro is like the Rachael Ray of the San Diego Zoo. A no-nonsense family gal from small-town New England who wears crisply pressed khakis and carries a water bottle on a leash, she sits behind the wheel of a massive double-decker bus, sporting a California tan, a youthful blond ponytail and pink rubber bracelets-a picture of what every good Girl Scout might aspire to be.
'My dad always said, 'If you're going to do something, be the best at it that you can be,'' Morihiro says. 'I'm a firm believer in leaving your problems at the gate. Have a good day or a bad day-it's not up to anybody but you.'
The guides are provided with a basic script to follow, but Morihiro says they're encouraged to improvise and express their own personalities. She excels at this, which is likely why she's often selected to give private VIP tours and be the go-to guide when a reporter comes for a visit.
'Do we need to get some caffeine on this bus, or what?' she quips to the passengers as she prepares to embark. 'Don't make me get all Rhode Island on you people.'
The crowd titters. The giant bus lurches out of the loading dock, Morihiro confidently at the helm.
She motors in the direction of the animals, expertly avoiding stray toddlers along the winding narrow road, distracting her passengers by plugging locations the tour doesn't cover. Caribbean flamingos, the Skyfari and the reptile house come and go on the left. The tigers are a no-show, but Morihiro's not fazed.
'I don't spend a lot of time describing animals you can't see,' she explains unapologetically, accelerating past the empty enclosure.
Down the road, everyone's encouraged to howl at Kenai, a bristly white Alaskan wolf out for a walk with his trainer. He arches his back and howls in response, emitting a sound that's beautiful, mournful and vast.
In between big attractions, Morihiro's chatter keeps things lively. A roaming peacock appears, his plumage especially vivid in the morning sun.
'You notice this, gentlemen-what the male birds have to do to impress the female?' she says dryly. 'For me, with my husband, all it took was a nice dinner and a big fat diamond.'
Though she seems keen on the snappy one-liners, Morihiro doesn't consider herself a comedian. 'You want to entertain, but I'm not doing it to get laughs,' she explains. 'I like to have fun with people. And, hopefully, within the fun, there'll be some animal facts that they'll take away with it. Because people will listen more if they're having fun.'
After 11 years of commanding the tour bus, she knows her animal facts: Flamingo tongues were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome; giraffe hearts weigh 25 pounds-about as much as a good holiday turkey; polar bears actually have black skin; warthogs are so named for the fleshy patches on their sinus cavities; and hyenas' powerful jaws are capable of masticating even hooves and bone.
Morihiro later says her favorite animal is the giraffe, though not because of its enormous heart and certainly not for its 15-month gestation period.
'They're just-they're beautiful,' she says. 'They're peaceful. They're non-combative. They just don't bother any other animal. People should be that way. Just get along. Just be.'
As the 40-minute tour draws to an end, Morihiro makes one closing pitch.
'By the way, if you think this is fun, we're hiring for the summer,' she says. 'All you need are nerves of steel and a lot of patience.'
For those not up for the job but who still want to get the most out of the zoo in the summer, Morihiro recommends taking advantage of the extended hours (June 23 through Sept. 3) by coming in around 4 p.m. and staying until the place closes at 9 p.m.
'Early in the morning and later in the day are the best time for the animals,' she says. 'It's really neat to be at the zoo when the sun goes down. I love the cats at night-they're nocturnal, so they're going to be a little more active, and the elephants may trumpet.'
People who find themselves at the zoo in the middle of a hot day might look for trainers blowing snow at the polar bears, or elephants slurping on fruit popsicles.
If the heat gets to be too much and all the animals are snoozing in the shade, there's always the option of hopping on the bus for a ride with Wendy.
'Tour buses are usually packed in the summer,' she says. 'You get some really rowdy crowds, and I love it. Not too rowdy, but you get some feedback.
'It's a whole different feel,' she adds. 'It's when we're working really hard and we generally can get a good response from people, because they know we're doing the best we can.'