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Orange County

Petting Zoo Sale Is Off; Owner Seeks New Buyer

Gil Jones, of San Juan Capistrano's Jones Family Mini-Farm, would like to keep the attraction operating, but perhaps cannot.

October 25, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

After a frustrating week, 72-year-old Gil Jones on Sunday was back on the farm.

As he has for 25 years, Jones was leading children to animals. It's a routine he thought he was walking away from when he entered into a $2.1-million transaction in August to sell the Jones Family Mini-Farm, a San Juan Capistrano landmark that attracts 150,000 visitors a year.

Jones, a former San Juan Capistrano mayor, had visions of retiring after finding a buyer who would preserve the small petting zoo.

But the deal fell through last week, leaving Jones with his 300 emus, rabbits, horses, goats and other animals.

So it was back to business as usual, and Jones was resigned instead of retired. On Sunday, the train ride was running. The kids were giving carrots to the animals. A team of pint-sized cowboys in broad-rimmed hats showed up to celebrate a birthday.

But behind the happy facade lay Jones' chagrin.

"I really thought I was going to save the farm," said Jones, who already had moved to another part of San Juan Capistrano at the request of the would-be buyers. "Now I'm changing my view. I thought people would jump at the chance to have the farm. I'm embittered by this."

Jones had hoped to sell the farm, in San Juan Capistrano's historic downtown district, to the Steiner Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.

The institute said it wanted to begin a children's development program on the farm and keep a teacher in residence there, and had been operating the farm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

But the Steiner board disbanded and the deal fell through, Jones said.

Steiner officials could not be reached Sunday for comment.

With the sale collapsed, Jones, who is now paying two mortgages, is again looking for a buyer.

He said he was in contact with five prospective buyers, including a nonprofit organization that might use the animals to provide therapy to disabled children.

But he's still waiting for an offer and said he preferred to sell to someone who would maintain the property as a zoo.

David Lieberman came with his wife and two children Sunday "because we want to be supportive," after learning of the farm's travails. His daughter Lila, 2, was ecstatic as she tried to feed a carrot to an emu.

Locals are hoping someone who values the petting-zoo experience will step up to buy the farm.

Russ Price, who raises chickens, turtles and butterflies at his nearby home, showed up Sunday with a 345-pound pumpkin for Jones to display.

"Someone should keep it going," Price said. "It's something that makes us San Juan. It's a great thing to do with the family."

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