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A More Manageable Zoo : Santa Ana's Menagerie May Be Smaller Than the Other Guys', but It's Distinguished

January 03, 1991|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

If the only animals your children have seen lately are muscle-bound reptiles with lousy diets, maybe it's time you took them--the kids, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--to the zoo.

After the holidays, you may be just too sapped (and broke) for a jaunt to San Diego or Los Angeles. But if you have a couple of hours and a few bucks to spare, consider a quick trip to the Santa Ana Zoo, where about 250 furred and feathered folk are waiting to make your acquaintance.

Smaller and humbler than its cousins to the north or south, the Santa Ana Zoo houses a respectable collection of animals, birds, reptiles and fish in a well-kept, if somewhat outdated, setting. Primates make up the lion's share of the animal collection, but visitors can also get a glimpse at everything from an African rock hyrax (a low-slung character that resembles a furry meat loaf) to a slithery California kingsnake.

Founded in 1952, the zoo fills only about a third of its 20-acre site in Prentice Park, but plans are in the works for extensive expansions and improvements, said zoo director Claudia Collier. On the drawing board is Monkey Island, an open-air exhibit dedicated primarily to South American animals that Collier hopes "will set the tone for future development of the zoo."

Upon arrival, take a stroll down the monkey aisle and say howdy to Grandma, a venerable but spry weeper capuchin who, at 38, is one of the zoo's longest inhabitants. On most sunny mornings, you can find Grandma lounging on the balcony of her small enclosure, sharing grooming tips and tales of yore with her roomie, a male black-capped capuchin. Small in stature, with slender, curling tails, capuchins are native to Central and South America.

Like things a bit rowdier? Then step on down to the larger black-capped capuchin exhibit, home of three slap-happy juveniles, four adults and a brand new baby. While the tiny tot snuggles peacefully on mom's chest, his or her (to minimize human intervention, zoo staff won't determine the baby's sex for several weeks or months) siblings happily trash the house, romping, swinging and somersault ing like, well, a barrelful of monkeys. Things are just as crazy at the neighbor's house, where a trio of young Celebes crested macaques, found in the wild in Asia, Africa and Europe and distinguished by their fiery red bottoms, carouse among the breakfast leftovers while dad, absorbed with his morning pedicure, ignores the whole scene.

Just a banana's throw away, a pair of regal-looking mountain lions also seem above the chaos. Born in the wild in 1978, the brother and sister duo were confiscated from a private party by the Arizona Fish and Game Department and donated to the zoo as cubs. Hand-raised by zoo personnel, the cats, whose natural range extends from Canada to South America, now spend their days relaxing among the cacti in their Southwestern-style enclosure.

The zoo's bald eagle pair also have a colorful past. Housed in an open-air exhibit, each bird lost a wing in the wild, the victims of illegal hunters. According to Connie Sweet, the zoo's curator of animals, they were one of 14 pairs of bald eagles previously enrolled in a government-funded captive breeding program at the University of Minnesota. The pair came to the Santa Ana Zoo in 1988, shortly after the university program lost its financial backing. Despite their slightly lopsided stance, the birds still maintain their proud, slightly snooty bearing.

In addition to their regular exhibits, the zoo also offers a small children's area with barnyard animals for petting, as well as a playground, weekend elephant rides and a gift shop and snack bar. A series of natural science workshops for ages 3 and up are also available through the zoo's education department. These include "Mommy and Me at the Zoo," a five-part series of crafts, tours and animal encounters for preschoolers and their parents; Scutes and Scales, a one-day, hands-on seminar on snakes and amphibians, and "Breakfast with the Beasts," an early morning breakfast and staff-led zoo tour.

Zoo's Food Budget? It Ain't Hay

You think your food bills are hefty? Try feeding the menagerie at the Santa Ana Zoo.

According to a recent issue of Friends of the Santa Ana Zoo's "Animal Tales," the newsletter put out by the zoo's fund-raising group, the tab to feed the zoo crew averages about $750 per week.

On the shopping list: 150 pounds of carrots, six cases of apples, bananas and oranges, parrot pellets, monkey chow and alfalfa hay--that's per week. Every month, the menu includes 22,000 mealworms, 1,000 large crickets and several mixed bags of rats, mice and frogs. And don't forget the wildcat food: every other month, the zoo buys 500 pounds of feline diet, a frozen blend that is based on horse meat.

What: The Santa Ana Zoo.

When: Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (admission tickets are sold until one hour before closing).

Where: 1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: From 1st Street, turn south on Elk Lane, then east on Chestnut.

Wherewithal: 75 cents to $2. Children under age 3 and handicapped visitors are free.

Where to call: (714) 836-4000.

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