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Santa Ana Zoo's Big Game Plan

Parks: Facility launches campaign to vie for visitors, raises funds to add more animals.

September 02, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lost in the shadows of nearby amusement parks, the little-known Santa Ana Zoo is launching an aggressive campaign to let folks know that Mickey Mouse isn't the only animal in Orange County worth checking out.

Along with a new children's area featuring farm animals, and plans for an exotic jaguar exhibit, the city zoo has hired a new fund-raiser to publicize the small park and raise the millions of dollars needed to bolster its modest collection of animals.

The push comes as the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park celebrates its 50th anniversary and just months after it regained the national accreditation it was stripped of by the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. in 2000 because of delayed maintenance and improvements.

"We are one or two exhibits away from being a primary destination," said Ron Glazier, the zoo's director.

While optimistic, Glazier realizes he faces a mammoth task. Tourists and Orange County residents have an abundance options when it comes to spending their money and free time, from Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm to the local beaches and shopping malls.

Santa Ana's small animal park also is between two of the country's largest and most popular zoos--the San Diego Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo, both of which are just a daytrip away.

Statistics also show that the Santa Ana Zoo's annual attendance and membership pale in comparison to similar-sized zoos nationwide, and to many zoos in California.

In a county of 3 million people, the Santa Ana Zoo has just 4,500 members even though a $39 tax-deductible membership, which allows a family free admission for a year, costs less than a single ticket to Disneyland.

John Floyd, the zoo's new fundraiser, accepts this challenge as he begins to promote the zoo to the community and to potential corporate donors. Although Floyd started three months ago, his job really began in late August with the park's annual Zoofari, the zoo's big $150-a-plate fundraiser.

Floyd, a North Carolina businessman who honed his fund-raising skills last year during a stint at United Way, hopes to create a buzz by publicizing the construction of the zoo's new children's area, which is scheduled to begin in this month. The exhibit will include rare breeds of farm animals such the Navajo-Churro sheep, Oberhasli goat and unusual breeds of swine, cattle, geese and turkeys.

"We need to show people what a gem this is," Floyd said. "I've been talking to people about my new job and some of them don't even realize there is a zoo in Santa Ana. I think there is room for a lot of improvement."

Santa Ana has owned and operated the zoo ever since citrus grower Joseph Prentice willed the land to the city half a century ago. Under the terms of the gift, the city agreed to always maintain 50 primates on the property.

In fact, the main zoo has been known for years as monkey row because of its silver langur, lemurs, brown-headed spider monkeys and their cousins. In all, the zoo now has 276 animals.

"The kids like it. They get to run around. But really, you have to admit, that there isn't much more here than a bunch of monkeys," said Felice Jackson, a Tustin mother of three.

Jackson and other parents say they often chose the zoo because, with a $5 admission for adults and $3 for children and seniors, it's less expensive than other attractions. It's also easier to get to and offers a train ride and other kid-friendly accommodations.

Evelina Madrazo, who took her niece to the zoo on a recent day, said her favorite part is the aviary, complete with a running brook, luscious plants and roseate spoonbills.

"It is a little peace in the middle of a hectic county, a hectic world. It'll be nice to have a few more animals here," she said. "But this is just a little oasis that isn't far from home."

Glazier said that despite the lack of animals, the zoo attracts parents because they don't have to push strollers up and down hills as they do at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, and parents are never too far away from their cars.

Glazier estimates that about one-third of the park's visitors come from Santa Ana, one-third from surrounding cities and the rest from other parts of Southern California. The zoo is conducting a more thorough survey of its visitors, which officials hope will guide their campaign to improve the park's appeal.

About 760 people visit the Santa Ana Zoo daily, and park officials expect that number could spike when the new children's zoo area opens in 2003.

Administrators at other California small and modest-sized zoos said that without rotating exhibits and other programs, it's difficult to increase attendance.

Jeanette Gulledge, marketing director for the Oakland Zoo, said a campaign to increase membership could pay off. As in Santa Ana, she said, many people from more affluent suburbs did not want to come to Oakland.

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