There'll be no free lunch for the inhabitants of Ventura County's first public zoo when the long-awaited, $1.2-million facility opens next year at Moorpark College.
But visitors aren't likely to hear many squawks about it because most of the animals that will live there are already used to working for their room and board.
The animals to be in the zoo are part of the college's Exotic Animal Training and Management program and, for several years, have performed shows nearly every day, earning enough money to pay for about 75% of the costs of the two-year college program.
Fees from the performances, as well as zoo admission charges, are expected to provide a healthy subsidy toward the operating cost of the planned zoo.
When completed, the Moorpark facility is expected to be the fourth- or fifth-largest zoo in the state, with about 134 kinds of animals, including lions and tigers, as well as trained chickens, program director Gary Wilson said.
Idea Approved in 1985
College officials began consideration of a zoo on the campus in 1978, but the Ventura County Community College District Board of Trustees did not approve the idea until 1985 because of the expected cost, college officials said.
Besides receiving revenue from animal performances, the new Moorpark College zoo also will benefit from the work of students, who are, in effect, unpaid zookeepers, officials said. Students share a 24-hour watch over the animal compound, they said.
"It's going to be different from any other zoo because people will be able to see students training animals," Wilson said.
The animals, which will continue to be part of the college program, have drawn about 65,000 paying customers annually. The program trains students for careers in working with animals at zoos and in the entertainment industry.
The performances also pay the lion's share of feeding and housing the 350 or so animals that will move into the zoo from the college's existing exotic animal compound, college officials said. Last year, the animals earned about $55,000 of the $75,000 paid for food and veterinary fees.
Zoo Finished Next Year
Moorpark College officials are optimistic that performance revenues will go even higher after the 8-acre, on-campus zoo is finished next year.
"Once the word gets out, I think we could have as many 100,000 people a year," said Stan Bowers, the college's vice president of administrative services.
Each year, about 60,000 school-age children attend weekday performances put on by the animals and their student trainers at the college's 200-seat Wildlife Theater, said Susan Cox, the program's educational coordinator. The other 5,000 visitors come to the weekly Sunday performance, she said.
Another source of revenue is private parties. For about $300, area residents can hire eight to 10 of the animals and their trainers for a one-hour show at home. "We've done a lot of birthday parties," she said.
The existing 1-acre compound is not open to the public because the cages that house some of the more dangerous animals, such as the lions and tigers, could not protect unsupervised visitors who wander too close, said Lynn Doria, one of the program teachers.
No Larger Animals
The compound houses primates such as baboons, as well as birds, snakes and wolves. There is also one sea lion, one llama, one ostrich and one water buffalo. Larger animals such as elephants or giraffes will not be housed at the zoo because they are difficult to care for, college officials said.
The Moorpark College program, established as a major in 1974, provides the only formal education in exotic animal training nationwide, program director Wilson said. Students learn about the animals in classrooms and by cleaning cages and other chores until, in the second year of the program, they begin working with trained animals and perform in the shows, he said.
The college selects 50 students each year from among an average of 130 applicants, Wilson said. The program is demanding, he said, with only about half of the students staying long enough to graduate with the college's certificate in exotic animal training and management.
About 85% of the program's graduates find work each year, Wilson said. Most of the graduates are employed with amusement parks such as Sea World in San Diego, zoos, and in the television and motion picture industry, he said.
Only one other college in the country, Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., teaches zoo keeping, Wilson said. "But they don't teach animal training; we're the only one," he said.
Money for construction of the zoo will come from the college district, as well as from grants by Unocal and from private donations, college officials said. It will take about five years before all the improvements planned for the zoo are completed, Wilson said.
The zoo probably will be open to the public all day on weekends and weekday afternoons, college officials said. Admission fees probably will be about $4 for adults and less for children, officials said.
Construction is expected to begin by summer, they said.