Five years ago, the zoo at Irvine Regional Park was less a true collection of animals than a huge outdoor pen. It was, said zoo director Nancy Filbert, 1.5 acres of land and a few old Army barracks enclosed by a large fence, and had been for many years. The few animals either roamed the grounds freely or were housed in the converted barracks.
"It was kind of a free-for-all," said Filbert.
Today the same 1.5 acres contains a series of meticulously landscaped displays, cages and pens that are home to dozens of animals and birds that are indigenous to the Southwest, from pronghorns to red-tailed hawks to a pair of gray wolves.
"Except for the two monkeys," said Filbert. "They're two stump-tailed macaques. They came along with the menagerie."
That's the word Filbert uses to describe the zoo before its reopening in 1984. It was, she said, a hodgepodge of animals, generally donated by individuals, that had no cohesive theme.
The park zoo got its modest start in 1920, said Filbert, when a pair of pet deer were donated by a Tustin rancher. Over the years, she added, various people would drop off mainly animals or birds that had been injured or that had become too tame to be released into the wild.
That is how many of the zoo's current animals got there, although today the process of acquiring them has become more focused, Filbert said. Several of the injured animals come from professional animal rehabilitators. And more exotic animals may be on loan from other, larger zoos. (The pronghorns, for instance, were provided by the Los Angeles Zoo, Filbert said.)
However, the zoo has grown beyond the intimate. It is still a place where visitors can see a broad variety of Southwestern animals at often remarkably close range. And in many cases, the animals have become comfortable enough with their human neighbors to venture up to the very edge of their pens, only inches away from the curious faces on the other side.
The wolves, mule deer, peccaries and even the usually skittish coyotes will fearlessly approach the edges of their enclosures and maybe even poke a snout through the fence in an attempt to satisfy their own curiosity.
Also, because most of the zoo's visitors are elementary school children (mostly first-graders, said Filbert), one end of the facility has been set up as a petting zoo and is stocked mostly with barnyard animals.
"The kids love it here," she said. "For them it's the most popular part of the zoo. It's the happiest place on Earth, next to Disneyland. You'd be surprised how many kids have never seen a cow."
The zoo provides one, along with a pair of 600-pound pigs and several knee-high pygmy goats.
"Those goats are good for the kids because their small size doesn't terrify them," said Filbert.
Free guided tours for groups are available any time during regular operating hours, Filbert said, although "we're generally booked solid about 6 months in advance during March, April and May." During other months, group reservations should be made about a month in advance.
THE IRVINE REGIONAL PARK ZOO AT A GLANCE
Where: Irvine Regional Park (at the easternmost end of Chapman Avenue, east of Orange).
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends.
Admission: Free to zoo (admission to park, $2 per car).
Information and tour reservations: (714) 633-2022.