If you do any freeway driving in Orange County, the chances are good that you've regularly come within a few yards of spotting a couple of black bears, a mountain lion, a few dozen spectacular tropical birds and nearly 50 monkeys.
The chances also are good that you've never known it.
Driving on the Santa Ana Freeway just south of 1st Street, it's difficult to tell that on the other side of the fence on the west side of the freeway is the Santa Ana Zoo, home to nearly 300 exotic animals. The only accredited zoo between Los Angeles and San Diego, it's tucked in a nook of the county amid some of the area's heaviest traffic, a spot where even the black bears have no trouble maintaining a low profile.
"A large number of people don't know there's a zoo here," said Claudia Collier, the zoo's superintendent. "And many people think the zoo is only for little kids. Some adults don't come unless they come with kids."
While children did make up at least half of the zoo's 220,000 visitors last year, Collier said the operation of the zoo is anything but kid stuff. As a result of the expansion and upgrading of many of the zoo's facilities in the last decade, as well as cooperative breeding agreements and educational programs, the zoo received accreditation from the American Assn. of Zoological Parks in 1985. About a fifth of the nearly 500 American zoos are accredited.
The centerpiece of the zoo, said Collier, is its extensive primate collection. When Joseph Prentice donated nearly 15 acres of orange groves in 1952 for the building of the zoo, he stipulated that no less than 50 primates be kept there at all times, she said. Today, the stars of the primate show are a pair of lion-tailed macaques, representatives of one of the nine most critically endangered primates designated by the World Wildlife Federation. With its variety of species of mammals, birds and reptiles--nearly a hundred of them--the zoo remains small. The seven acres of displays can be seen, said Collier, "in about 20 minutes if you just stroll through. But I'd like to see people staying longer, maybe an hour and a half to two hours, so they can really observe the behavior of the animals."
The small children's petting zoo, which features barnyard animals such as sheep and chickens, has remained popular over the years, Collier said. Also in the petting zoo are a handful of reptile terrariums. The snakes, however, all are nonpoisonous.
Owned, operated and funded by the City of Santa Ana, the zoo has enjoyed more official recognition and, particularly, money, in recent years, Collier said. In the five years she has been superintendent, she said, the zoo's operating budget has more than tripled.
Programs such as zoo tours for grade-school-age children, a traveling "zoomobile" show, a series of family workshops in natural history, summer zoo camps for children, zoo laboratory exhibits for classroom use and docent training workshops have continued to grow.
"Zoos everywhere have been changing a lot in the last 10 to 15 years," said Collier. "We're trying to tell the community what we're involved in, like conservation and cooperative breeding. We're not just a collection of animals to entertain people. We want to foster an appreciation and a respect for animals, too."
SANTA ANA ZOO AT A GLANCE
Admission: Adults, $2; children ages 3 through 12, 75 cents. Group rates available.
Hours: Open seven days a week. Winter hours (beginning Oct. 1), 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Summer hours (beginning July 1), 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Animals: 300 animals in 45 exhibits representing nearly 100 species of mammals, birds and reptiles. Several endangered species. Area exhibits featuring animals from Australia and South America, as well as an aviary and a children's petting zoo. Particularly noted for primate collection.
Facilities: Picnic areas with tables, restrooms, telephones, feed dispensers for petting zoo and for feeding waterfowl at the pond (10 cents per portion).
Address: 1801 E. Chestnut Ave.
Santa Ana, Calif. 92701
(just off Santa Ana Freeway in Santa Ana, First Street off ramp)