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THE ZOO : For a Cute Trip, Visit the Animals : Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens celebrates its 30th year with a collection of charming critters.

July 15, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The pursuit of "cute" in Santa Barbara usually includes a blank-faced stare across the dance floor at some musical meat market where dancing fools are on the perennial prowl.

The critters are much cuter at the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens, the venue is much quieter and no one will laugh at you because you can't dance. And this summer the zoo is celebrating its 30th anniversary. So this might be a great time to see the 700 animals in 80 displays on the flora-friendly 40-acre site. Many of them are cute with a capital "C," none more so than the zoo's most recent inhabitants, a pair of golden lion tamarins. The newest pair of tiny primates to come to Santa Barbara, the tamarins have only been in the area this year.

The zoo is a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean and East Beach, which has bathtub-sized waves and is across the street from the bird refuge. The first thing you notice inside the zoo are the otters.

Otters have a great job. They swim around and goof off all day and look as though they're laughing at the tourists. They probably are. The otters had the opportunity to laugh at 350,000 visitors last year, an attendance record.

Then there's the capybara, not very cute and nobody's sweetheart. A rodent from Central and South America, the capybara is a 30-pound rat.

The muntjac is a tiny deer that looks just like Bambi. Full grown, the muntjac is 25 inches tall, or not much bigger than its name. It was snoozing. Since the critters aren't big on cable TV and many of them are nocturnal, there's a whole lot of snoozing going on at the zoo.

According to our tour guide, the lion is the laziest critter in creation, sleeping about 22 hours a day. The Bengal tiger checked out due to old age, so the lion is the only big cat at the zoo.

About the cutest critters at the entire zoo are the lemurs. All lemurs come from the island of Madagascar, but they look like they came from Dr. Seuss by way of a box of Trix.

With cute little mugs, furry bodies and brown strips around their tails, the ring-tailed lemurs stared at the gapers indifferently. Next door are the black and white ruffled lemurs who, with their striking appearance, are the logo for the facility, look as though they're wearing Clark Gable's frilly shirt from "Gone With the Wind."

The white-handed gibbons, an endangered species from Southeast Asia, are envied in Santa Barbara. They have their own island to romp on. It's right next to the bird refuge, but there's no great escape in their future--Gibbons don't swim. One of the zoo's most active species, gibbons jump around like punk-rock fans in the front row, then chill out and give each other a massage and a good grooming.

Looking like a 15-pound house cat with a better paint job, Geoffrey's cat is a Central American local. Not much more than a pile of spots, the cat spends a lot of time doing what cats do best--you guessed it--catching some z's.

If coatimundis were as big as bears, they'd probably rule the world. Sort of like a raccoon with a bad nose job, the coatimundis, also called a coatis, has a bad case of the terminal fidgets.

In their native Central and South America, coatis run in packs and eat everything that walks, talks, creeps, crawls, slithers, flies and hasn't been dead more than 10 minutes. The three at the zoo were digging for stuff that wasn't there or doing flips in the air, practicing for their next escape attempt.

The newest crashers, the golden lion tamarins, are running out of space in their native Brazil--developers are busy there too. These critters are not lions but itty-bitty monkeys with cute little faces surrounded by an impeccably groomed mane of eclectic yellow hair, which is so bright, viewers need sunglasses.

The zoo has lots of other stuff worth checking out as well, such as the giant anteaters, Baird's tapirs, wallabies, badgers, prairie dogs, all sorts of colorful birds and those real California locals, sea lions.

The entire zoo walk takes just about an hour. Lazy types, who don't mind riding with two-legged, gum-chewing ferrets (kids), can take a train that circles the whole shebang.

The highest point of the zoo, the grassy knoll according to our guide, is also the site of about 30 weddings per year. Divorces, apparently, transpire at less picturesque locales.

They don't call the place the Zoological Gardens for nothing: There are rare and strange plants everywhere.

Several new exhibits are in varying stages of planning or construction, but their ultimate completion depends upon the generosity of local animal lovers. In other words, this place is a nonprofit organization and welcomes donations.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens, 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adults: $5. Children 2 to 12 and seniors over 60 are $3. Free parking. For more information, call 962-5339.

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