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Big Bear Zoo Needs $6 Million to Migrate

Most of the park's 150 animals are orphaned, injured or can't be released into the wild.

May 11, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

In diners, ski outlets and liquor stores around Big Bear Lake, yellow-papered coffee cans sit on counters, waiting for cash and coins.

These are not tip jars. Rather, the cans are generating about $3,000 a month for a major moving project: The beloved county zoo must leave its current location across from the Bear Mountain Ski Resort, a move that will cost at least $6 million.

"If people tip me, I put it in the can," said Nancy Butterworth, who works at Teddy Bear's Pantry and Big Bear Gourmet Coffee Co. in Big Bear Lake. "I could use it, but [the animals] need a new home more. I have a home."

Moonridge Animal Park, one of only two alpine zoos in the country and the only zoo in San Bernardino County, cannot remain on its current 2.5-acre site. The pine-covered slope across the street from the ski resort was sold to private investors from Rancho Santa Fe last fall.

Although the new landlords intend to honor the zoo's lease, which ends in 2009, officials at Moonridge don't want to gamble with the fate of their 150 animals, most of whom are orphaned, injured or can't be released into the wild.

The zoo, which focuses on alpine or native species, has developed plans for a larger, more secluded wildlife center on the north shore of Big Bear Lake. The National Forest Service, which owns the land, must approve the project.

"Most zoos want perfect-looking animals, and they won't accept one-winged birds," said curator Don Richardson. "If this doesn't work out, these animals may not be acceptable at other places. Some will have to be put down."

The zoo's 83 species include bald eagles, timber wolves, the only wood bison on display in North America and rare snow leopards, which usually roam the mountains of Central Asia.

If the fund-raising fails, the zoo's 12-person full-time staff will have to find new jobs, Richardson added, probably far away from their current homes.

So far, the zoo has identified $4 million in private donations -- including the counter-top coffee cans -- along with county, state and federal grants.

"We need big corporate sponsors at this point," said Paddy Speyers, president of the Friends of Moonridge Zoo. "But we know businesses are hurting too."

At the very least, the zoo needs $6 million to transport the animals and set up the basic infrastructure.

Zoo visitors said last week they were impressed by Moonridge and supported its expansion.

"Rather than euthanizing animals or shipping them off, they can take care of them," said Monica Post, a zoo regular who visited recently with her 4-year-old daughter, Shelby. Post said she often takes her three children to the zoo, and Shelby had a birthday party there.

The zoo received passing marks from the California Department of Fish and Game on its last inspection for a rehabilitation permit. Mike McBride, an assistant chief for the department who has worked extensively with Moonridge, said he has enjoyed a very good working relationship with Richardson.

"He has gone out of his way for animals we need a home for," McBride said. "I've knocked on his door more than once."

About 200 wild birds and animals are treated at Moonridge each year, with 70% returning to the wild. Many animals that have become too close with people to live on their own or are severely injured stay in the park.

At the new wildlife center, operated through a special-use permit with the Forest Service, Richardson hopes to exhibit 500 animals and treat many more. The lushly forested exhibits will group animals according to the Serrano, Gold Rush and Modern eras. He hopes that the number of zoo visitors will double from the current 75,000 a year.

Moonridge officials chose the new site because the slope is sunnier and more secluded, and because the Forest Service's Big Bear Discovery Center is next door. The two centers plan to share such resources as an auditorium and maintenance storage areas.

Kris Assel, executive director of the San Bernardino National Forest Assn., which operates the Discovery Center, said she is looking forward to the collaboration.

"The mission of the animal park and the mission of the Discovery Center dovetail," she said. "We tell the story through displays and programming, and they tell the story with live animals."

When Moonridge pitched the idea 10 years ago, the Forest Service hesitated. Forest Service spokeswoman Ruth Wenstrom said officials were concerned that a zoo -- with caged animals and exotics -- would not be compatible with the service's mission to care for the land.

"When we started thinking about it as an educational program, we shifted focus," Wenstrom said. "The displays can be done in a habitat similar to the forest we are in and focus on how people affect the habitat."

Wenstrom said the Forest Service is looking over the park's business plan. "Our biggest concern is that their business plan is viable and the zoo lasts," she said.

Some oppose Moonridge's move, but only because they love the zoo where it is.

Jeanine Martin, who lives within earshot of the grizzly pen, said she and her neighbors will miss their wake-up call.

"When you wake up, you hear this moo," said the 41-year-old Big Bear native. "And you think, 'Is this a cow? No, it's a bear.' "

Richardson can't get enough of the animals either. He recently nuzzled a 45-pound mountain lion cub who launched herself into his arms and started gnawing on his bearded chin as soon as he stepped inside her enclosure.

The 23-year zoo veteran bottle-fed the three mountain lion cubs when they arrived at the zoo in November, newly orphaned and suffering from ringworm and roundworm. Like many of Moonridge's animals, they have slept in the bed the curator shares with his wife, Debbie, the zoo's lead keeper.

Debbie Richardson said she cannot bear to think about relocating animals or euthanizing them.

"If we take on an animal," she said, "we make a lifetime commitment to them."

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