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Haven for all creatures broken, lost

The Orange County Zoo is a repository for animals with unusual stories from the wilds of California.

July 28, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer
  • Nacho, a Black bear was found by wildlife authorities near Lake Tahoe. "He was held by a private citizen for seven days, that's all we know," said Marcy Crede-Booth.
Nacho, a Black bear was found by wildlife authorities near Lake Tahoe. "He… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

The Orange County Zoo is not your usual menagerie of lions, tigers and bears.

There are no majestic animals from the African savanna, no awe-inspiring creatures from Arctic reaches. Rather, here on this 5-acre wooded spread at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains are 60 mostly hard-luck animals who have had run-ins, bad breaks and unfortunate entanglements with humankind.

Visitors to the hard-to-find zoo in Irvine Regional Park in Orange encounter a hobbling bald eagle, a lopsided vulture, four-horned sheep, a raccoon that was the runt of his litter and a potbellied pig that outlived its owner, who died of cancer.

Specializing in animals native to the Southwest and accepting only those that cannot be released into the wild have made the Orange County Zoo a repository for creatures with unusual, harrowing stories, many rooted in California's landscape. And what this ragtag group lacks in exoticism it makes up for in traumatic tales of near death and abandonment.

Its wildcats, birds, reptiles and rodents have been shot, hit by cars, forcibly removed from lakes, had altercations with power lines and been illegally harbored by families.

The aim of keeping them all together is to teach people about the animals they're likely to encounter in the hills, canyons and backyards of Southern California, said zoo manager Donald Zeigler.

"We use them to give the public more respect for animals they may come in contact with," he said. "They usually see them in a negative light, like when a coyote takes one of their cats. But they come here, hear their stories, and they see things differently."

The zoo's residents live in mostly chain-link enclosures arranged in a circle of paved walking paths. They are identified by small, fading signs. A tranquil landscape of oak trees, prickly pear cactus and native shrubs gives the property -- once a hunting reserve for the early land-owning Irvine family -- a sense of distance and isolation.

The zoo has some legendary alumni, among them animals that had a brush with notoriety as California has grown and collided with nature.

The so-called freeway foxes lived at the zoo until several years ago. The red fox mother and her cubs were among the last living things to stand in the way of the extension of the 55 Freeway in Costa Mesa. When they had nowhere else to go, they were routed to the zoo.

"They were considered vermin and probably would have been euthanized," Zeigler said.

And then there was Samson, the avocado-grubbing black bear who basked in the media spotlight in the 1990s for taking dips in a Monrovia neighborhood's pools and hot tubs. He lived out his twilight years at the zoo before he suffered kidney failure and had to be euthanized in 2001.

Now two black bears, Nacho and Yoyo, inhabit Samson's former grounds. Zookeepers have a curiously short biography of 10-year-old Nacho, a 600-pound bear hailing from the Lake Tahoe-area town of Homewood.

"He was held by a private citizen for seven days, that's all we know," said educational coordinator Marcy Crede-Booth. Such lapses in information are common for animals confiscated by state Fish and Game authorities, then relocated to the zoo.

That holds true for the zoo's senior bald eagle, one of its most debilitated denizens.

Housed in a cage removed from public view, the 35-year-old eagle (named Klink after the monocled "Hogan's Heroes" colonel) hobbles when he walks and is disfigured along his right side, presumably because he was maimed by a shotgun, though no one knows for sure.

Then there is the resident golden eagle, found by a rancher near a telephone wire with a broken wing and a drooping posture. Caretakers named it Sylas, which was fitting until a surprise arrived.

"We found out she was a female when she laid an egg," Zeigler said. But the name stuck.

Other animals serve as educational tools, Zeigler said. Most visitors, for example, are shocked by the mountain lion's large size.

When those who say they have spotted mountain lions in the wild see the long, thick tail and the muscular, slinky body of Simba, one of the zoo's two mountain lions, they realize that what they probably saw was a bobcat, Zeigler said.

The young mountain lion has a near-death story. A rancher got a permit to shoot its mother because she was killing his livestock. Only after she was shot did authorities notice that she had been lactating. They went off in search of her orphaned young, finding the weeks-old mountain lion cub.

With George and Gracie, the zoo's coyotes, zookeepers try to communicate the opposite message: Animals that look small, harmless and pet-like can be dangerous predators.

Both coyotes, who live in a sandy-floored cage, were found by the side of the road as pups, he in Chino, she in Lake Arrowhead.

George was even taken in by a family, who didn't realize they had adopted a coyote until they took him to a veterinarian for an exam.

"Most people think coyotes are small, so they don't seem aggressive, but they're crafty," Zeigler said.

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