Santa Ana Zoo superintendent Claudia Collier visited the city's zoo for the first time in the early 1970s while working as a keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo. She was not impressed.
Then known as Prentice Park Zoo--named for millionaire orange grower Joseph E. Prentice, who deeded the land for a zoo and park to Santa Ana in 1952--the two-acre zoo, sandwiched between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Saddleback Inn on 1st Street, was virtually unknown in zoological circles.
Collier recalls that there was no admission charge to the tiny zoo, which lacked a perimeter fence and that its animal exhibits--heavy on concrete and chain-link fencing--did nothing to enhance a visitor's appreciation of the animals.
Although other zoos had begun concentrating on acquiring rare or endangered species, the Santa Ana Zoo's animal collection was, Collier said, "real haphazard"--mostly whatever other zoos or private individuals had donated: deer, a couple of bears, coyotes, fox and other small animals. There also were a lot of birds and, of course, monkeys, thanks to a stipulation in Prentice's donation that at least 50 monkeys must be maintained at the zoo at all times.
Collier did not return to the zoo until 1981, when she was applying for the post of zoo superintendent. And although a perimeter fence had been installed and plans were under way for a new entrance, she was dismayed to discover that not much had changed.
"I thought twice about taking the job, and I don't want that to be a reflection of the staff," she said. "They did the best they could with the resources and support they had."
By that time, however, the City of Santa Ana had made a strong commitment to upgrading its zoo--it was renamed the Santa Ana Zoo in 1979--and city officials were searching for a formally educated, experienced professional who could provide the leadership needed to guide the small zoo in the future.
Collier, who had a degree in anthropology with an emphasis on primates, and who had by then been promoted to a senior keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo, not only met the qualifications but was eager for a new career challenge.
Still, she candidly admits, "I was insecure about my own capabilities. Moving from being a senior keeper to zoo director--that's a big step, and I wasn't sure I could make a difference."
Five years after her hiring as superintendent of the Santa Ana Zoo, however, city officials and zoo observers say Collier has made a distinct difference. Under her leadership, the zoo has:
- Upgraded its animal collection. Collier reduced the number of animals from about 500 to 300 by selling or donating many ordinary birds and animals and focusing more on the unusual. Gone, for example, are the commonplace budgies, finches and ring-necked doves. "Why exhibit budgies when we can exhibit turquoise parrots?" she says.
She also pared down the duplicate exhibits of capuchin monkeys--common South American monkeys--and brought in more rare primates such as golden-lion tamarins, lion-tail macaques, Diana monkeys and red-backed squirrel monkeys, an endangered sub-species from Central America.
- Renovated the animal exhibits, an ongoing project in which the sterile, man-made animal habitats are being made to look more natural, with logs, plants and rocks.
- Hired a curator of education and started an educational program that includes tours for schoolchildren, a Summer Zoo Camp program for youngsters and a revamped "zoomobile" that visits schools, libraries and convalescent hospitals. "Five years ago," she said, "our education programs were practically nonexistent."
- Built a 150-seat amphitheater that is used for the educational programs, tour orientations and the Zoo Camp program.
- Instituted a food concession program and an elephant ride, which Collier calls "a little something else the zoo visitor can do while here."
But what Collier views as her--and her 10 full-time staff members'--biggest accomplishment came last year when the Santa Ana Zoo received accreditation by the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, an honor that recognizes a zoo's high standards of animal care and management. Accreditation has been given to only 97 out of an estimated 500 zoos nationwide.
"I'm really proud of that; the staff here worked real hard on it, and we got the support of the city," Collier said. "I think it (accreditation) increases our credibility in the zoo world and in the community."
By all accounts, Collier scores high marks after five years on the job. Said Allen Doby, executive director of Santa Ana's Recreation and Community Services Agency and the man who hired her: "She's excellent.
"She has done a tremendous job in solving some of the many problems that existed at the zoo, and she's brought a tremendous amount of professionalism to our zoo and staff," he said. Over the past five years, the image of the Santa Ana Zoo "has improved immensely," Doby said. "Also, the revenue and attendance has increased."