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FOR THE KIDS : Closer to the Touch : The Santa Barbara Zoo has a different mix of animals in a new Discovery Area.

February 13, 1992|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Santa Barbara Zoo has a new look. Gone is the popular farmyard area by the entrance where children could feed crackers to the goats and pet the sheep.

It's been moved to a new Discovery Area, which zoo officials opened last month. Don't look for the goats, though. All 11 of them died last year from a bacterial infection.

Instead, the area has a mix of new animals you won't find in any farmyard. Two alpacas share the new enclosure with five four-horned sheep, two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, a goose and some chickens. One baby lamb arrived last week and another one was on the way.

The animals are all domesticated, and that's the idea behind the new area. It's a place where visitors can mingle a little closer to the animals.

The animals aren't in much of a mingling mood yet, reports Nancy Hollenbeck, the zoo's assistant director. They are shy and still getting used to each other.

Don't count on feeding them either. The zoo has yet to install a coin-operated cracker dispenser or some other method of dispensing food at the site, which is next to the playground, near the top of the hill.

But the animals are a kick just to watch. The alpaca is a domesticated South American llama and faintly resembles the camel. They are raised for their fleecy wool and usually sell for about $15,000 each. These two, however, were donated by the Pet Center in Los Angeles. The alpacas may be halter-trained so they can be led on walks throughout the zoo grounds.

The sheep came from a local ranch, and yes, they really do have four horns on their heads. The horns go every which way. Found in southwest United States and Mexico, the sheep also are raised for their wool.

The pigs are probably the most recognizable, thanks to a recent boom in popularity. About the size of German shepherd dogs and covered with coarse dark hair, they make good house pets, owners claim, because they are smart, affectionate and can be housebroken.

However, the zoo's two porkers, donated by local owners, haven't shown any of these traits. They keep to themselves and sleep in a tunnel that runs through the rocks adjacent to a small pond the animals share.

The exhibits in the barn next to the enclosure aren't finished, but there are a couple dozen baby chicks there. When an incubator is hooked up, children will be able to see newborn chicks breaking out of their shells. Other animal additions planned include a miniature horse and some goats.

The Discovery Area, built with $150,000 in donations, also includes another aviary especially for finches, which make good house pets, according to Hollenbeck. Because of the waterfall and lush landscaping, visitors barely notice that the aviary is totally enclosed with wire.

The aviary is also home to the skink, a green lizard whose talents include being able to hang by its tail. Other Discovery Area newcomers are the cuscuses, similar to the opossum. So far, they have been somewhat antisocial, preferring to sit together at the rear of the enclosure with their backsides toward visitors.

Yet to be built is a center to house displays and classrooms. By the summer of 1993, zoo officials plan to convert the old farmyard into a new restaurant, gift shop and administrative offices.

In addition to the new Discovery Area, be sure to check out the new baby giraffe. Big for his size, he doesn't look much like a 1-year-old.

The latest report on the trials of the older giraffe with the crooked neck isn't very encouraging. The noticeable zigzag in the 6-year-old female's neck is becoming more pronounced, and zoo officials are not optimistic she will live a normal life span. Visitors are so astonished by the neck that zoo folks have installed a sign that explains the condition is being monitored.

"She's one of the most studied and well cared for animal in the world," Hollenbeck said. Numerous giraffe veterinarians have been consulted and the consensus is that the zigzag is a permanent muscular contraction that has put her spine out of line. She shows no sign of being in pain, and she has no trouble eating.

Hollenbeck said that when the giraffe gave birth last year, zoo personnel weren't interested in whether it was a boy or girl. The first word out after the newborn's arrival was that it hadn't inherited its mother's strange neck condition. Unfortunately, that baby giraffe only lived a few days because of a defective liver.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To get there, take the Cabrillo Boulevard exit off Highway 101. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 2- to 12-years-old; seniors, children under 2 are free. For information, call 962-6310.

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