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A Zoo in Trouble Finds an Angel, Age 9

December 25, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — The lion died of cancer and the female hippo gave in to old age. The gorilla's living quarters were no longer up to snuff and he had to be shipped off, just like the polar bear.

Hard times have hit Fresno's Chaffee Zoo, once considered among the finest mid-sized municipal zoos in the country.

Raising money from wealthy farmers and developers isn't easy here. Organizations such as United Way say the San Joaquin Valley, beyond a handful of patrons, has never developed a culture of giving.

That's where little Angel Arellano comes in.

On Thanksgiving Day, the 9-year-old girl with a weak spot for animals -- she cares for an iguana and seven stray cats -- was sitting in the kitchen listening to three generations of elders bemoan the zoo's decline.

She grabbed her aunt's stationery, the one bordered in animals, and scrawled a letter to the Fresno Bee that has changed the way this community sees its frayed treasure.

"My name is Angel and I am 9. I heard that the Chaffee Zoo is having money problems. I am very worried for the animals. I think if everybody in Fresno gave $1 to the Chaffee Zoo it would help a lot. Here's my dollar," she wrote.

Jim Boren, the Bee's editorial page editor, had tried many times to awaken the city to the needs of the zoo on the poor south side.

His editorials couldn't keep Fresno from defeating a tenth-of-a-cent sales tax hike last March that would have raised millions of dollars for new exhibits and overdue capital projects.

Boren decided to publish Angel's letter -- in her own crooked handwriting -- next to an editorial headlined "Zoo's Guardian Angel."

Below a picture of the gap-toothed, smiling fourth-grader, the Bee invited readers to follow her example by donating to the "Dollars From Angels" fund.

The response was immediate. More than $37,000 -- in dollar bills and $1,000 checks -- have landed in the zoo's mailbox in the last month.

These days, it's hard to find Angel without a knot of reporters and cameras in tow.

"Do you know what it means to be a celebrity?" a reporter asks.

"It means I'm famous," Angel shoots back.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the superintendent of county schools have commended her "compassion and spirit."

The Roosevelt High School football team held a carwash to raise funds. Sunnyside High School, which draws its students mostly from poorer neighborhoods, managed to hand over $1,000 to the zoo's curator. Other school districts are planning their own drives after the holidays.

"It takes a lot to rally Fresno, and you're doing it," zookeeper Jodie Wright told Angel on a tour of the grounds this week.

The 18-acre zoo in Roeding Park remains a lovely spot in a city with too few greenbelts and no shortage of strip malls.

But Raymond Navarro, the zoo's supervisor, says he can no longer hide the years of neglect.

From the thatched-roof entrance -- the thatching is gone -- to the tiny pen for the two camels, the zoo needs millions of dollars to become what it once was: a respected facility that bigger zoos didn't hesitate to use as temporary home for animals on loan.

"Attendance keeps falling and we're in danger of losing our accreditation," Navarro said. "A zoo needs to keep adding new exhibits to draw people. Instead, we can't even afford to fix the suspension bridge in the Rain Forest exhibit. I'm all out of Band-Aids."

Angel's mother, Stacey Caha-Arellano, had been a volunteer zookeeper at Chaffee before landing a job with the Madera Police Department's animal control unit.

She wonders why it took the eyes and pen of a child to rouse Fresno.

"We have a lot of wealth in this valley, and it would be nothing for these rich builders to come forward and donate equipment and supplies. But everyone has become so self-absorbed," she said.

Navarro said some local firms, such as Tolladay Construction, Granite Construction and Morris Levin & Sons, have been quick to donate equipment and materials to patch up worn spots.

Last year, 1,200 volunteers spent a day sprucing up the grounds.

"We thought the bond measure would rescue us, but it didn't pass," Navarro said. "Now we're hoping Angel can lead the way."

Dollars From Angels

Chaffee Zoo Maintenance Fund

894 W. Belmont Ave.

Fresno, CA 93728

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