With close to 10 hectare Santa Barbara Zoo is the smallest zoo that I visit during my 2013 California zoo tour. Due to decisions made regarding the size of the animal collection and the Zoo's layout the Zoo grounds is not packed with enclosures, I assume. As the Zoo is built in the undulating landscape of the Californian coast the footpath along the enclosures has several slight climbs, but is doable for all. The advantage of the hillside is the different views it offer on the environment and the various elevations that arise in the enclosures. Unfortunately, the Zoo is located between Highway 101 and the Pacific ocean beach. Though the sound of the ocean surf is clearly audible at times, it drowns in the continuous sound of traffic on the highway tarmac.
On the right hand side after the entrance there's a pond with black swans, across from a strategically located gift shop – the last building before you exit the Zoo. What follows is the administration building on the left and a restaurant with a terrace straight on. From there the footpath leads to the first enclosure, a nice one for the Asian small-clawed otters with a waterfall and two pools, of which one lies secluded. I have seen only two specimens which is not many for an otter species that lives in social groups.
Next door there is a major construction site – where the new education centre (Discovery Pavilion) will arise, scheduled to be opened in March 2014. When walking to the snow leopards I pass an aviary that lacks an information panel. The aviary is nice though with lots of vegetation and species such as flamingo, ibis and two parrots. A bit further two Rüppell's griffon vultures are kept in a small aviary, but I have seen aviaries seldom large enough to my liking. But anyway, this one is really too small to provide the vultures any space for flying, though the wire mesh cage looks nice with the rocky bedding, rock face rear wall, waterfall and a tree for perching.
The snow leopards are on display in an exhibit with an artificial rock face rear wall, that has several levels for the cats to rest or observe their small territory. It also provides shaded shelters. Further enrichment is provided by tree trunks. There's not a lot of vegetation, but hey that is lacking in their native habitat, the Himalayas, as well. Nevertheless, the animals are rather exposed in this arena.
The Amur leopard, a felid species nearly extinct in the wild, has got a jungle-like enclosure at her disposal with lots of vegetation and plenty of hiding places. So, it is not so strange that I haven't seen the ageing female leopard. There's a small pool and several high level observation posts as well, including tree trunks, while the ground is multilevel. The wire mesh fences and roof are partly hidden by the vegetation in front of it to give the leopard some privacy, though good viewing is possible through a few windows. A feature in modern zoos that makes it hard or nearly impossible to take good pictures. Although taking pictures is not my main purpose when visiting a zoo, a clear picture says more than hundred words.
From this small leopard enclosure with nice features it is just a few steps to the absolute beautiful white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) island. There are some very large trees that allow the gibbons to climb to the top. In their native environment in the rainforests of south-east Asia the canopy is where they spend a lot of time while swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m, at speeds as high as 55 km/h, or display their vocal abilities. A gibbon's song can be heard for distances up to one kilometre. The vocal display can be heard and seen in this (), shot in Santa Barbara Zoo during my visit.
The next experience is something like unwrapping a gift. The design of the Asian elephant enclosure is such that, while coming from gibbon island, the footpath winds its way up along the enclosure until you reach the highest point. While seeing the enclosure from different angles walking up, the magnificent view on top with the Californian mountains in the background beats everything. You might wonder whether the two elephants wouldn't prefer a larger enclosure – because it is rather small – and a herd with more members, instead of a nice view! Besides a pool very close to a visitors' viewing spot, which may provide excellent footage of the animals bathing, there's not really a lot of enrichment, in my opinion. In this case there has been more attention to the visitors' wishes than the animal requirements, I would say.
Before I go to the more spacious part of the Zoo with in its centre large gardens and meadows for the visitors to enjoy a snack or ice-cream, I finish the small tour by visiting the Bolivian grey titi monkey (Callicebus donacophilus) which share their enclosure with the golden lion tamarin. Although they do not have access to a dense forest as in their native habitat, their enclosure is quite large with several palm trees, ropes and other enrichment features. Across from these South American monkeys, birds from this continent, Humboldt penguins, have a nice secluded enclosure with shades to protect them from the sun and mechanical fans to produce a cooling airflow. Adjacent to the penguins the Rainforest Passage houses fish, amphibians and reptiles, including common chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater, formerly known as S.obesus) that for the first time in the Zoo’s history had seven eggs this year which hatched after being carefully managed in an incubator for almost three months.
Then it's time to do the big tour around the park, with first the Channel Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis). This fox is the only carnivore found exclusively in California. They are found in a wide variety of habitats on the different Channel island off the coast, ranging from arid areas, coastal , and sparse woodlands. This species is crepescular, which means they are active at dawn and dusk. The enclosure is built uphill (or downhill if you wish) with natural vegetation and a wire mesh net all around, including the roof. The Channel Island foxes were close to extinction on four of the eight Channel islands just over a decade ago. But a conservation programme of Santa Barbara Zoo and partner institutions proves to be very successful, because these foxes are recovering well.
Another heroic effort Santa Barbara Zoo is involved in concerns California condors (Gymnogyps californianus). The Zoo takes part in the conservation programme, the Species Survival Programme (SSP), to save this bird species in the wild. In addition, together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Zoo shepherded the successful fledging of 22 wild condor chicks since 2007 in the California condor nest guarding programme. The Zoo's condors are kept in a similar enclosure as the next-door fox, also built against the hillside. It is a large aviary that allows the condors to spread their wings for a short flight, and it provides perches on poles for these endangered birds. The adjacent aviary with American bald eagles is also large enough for a flight over a short distance.
The two bachelor western lowland gorillas, half-brothers sharing the same father, are housed in a large outdoor pit with an artificial rock face wall, undulating grounds, trees, rocks, a small shallow pond and a few wooden platforms. There's a sheltered place with a viewing window where one of the gorillas is leaning against the window pane and curiously but relaxed is looking at the visitors. These bachelor gorillas are kept here at Santa Barbara Zoo in support of the SSP for gorillas.
The next-door neighbours of the gorillas are the Masai giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) where two recently born calves, April 2013, are exploring the paddock. Before the calves were born the giraffes shared their exhibit with southern ground hornbills, but they have been moved to a new enclosure. One of the highlights of many kids visiting Santa Barbara Zoo is the giraffe experience, where the giraffes can be fed with some roughage.
In a desert-like enclosure the Fennec fox is provided a habitat similar to its native environment. Good for educational purposes, but because this 'desert' doesn't provide any hiding place whatsoever, the animals are very exposed. The only shelter available for the fox are its indoor quarters. Which is very different from the African lion enclosure a bit further down the footpath. Although the lion enclosure is not very large, the pride of four have ample opportunity to wander around and hide from the public. For instance they can just lie down under the viewing platform and be completely hidden from the curious public. There's an enormous rock that serves as an observation post and makes it possible for the lions to see the giraffes in the enclosure nearby. In October 2012 the Zoo's male and female lions were joined by two 2-year old lionesses from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. These two sisters, unlike normal lion behaviour, like to play in the pool in the enclosure according to information on the Zoo's website. These two young lionesses are part of a matchmaking process, and they are very interested in the male lion, Chadwick. Unfortunately, he is not so eager to get involved, so no lion cubs in 2013! Gingerbread, the old female, has had two cubs with Chadwick but at the age of 16 is no longer breeding. All hopes are pinned on the two young lionesses.
Walking back to the exit, I have a quick look at the giant anteaters exhibit. The breeding track record of Santa Barbara Zoo for this species is excellent with twenty-six giant anteaters born since 1975. Nevertheless, the exhibit near the Zoo train station – yes, they do have a miniature train here, but no petting zoo! – has no peculiarities that I recognise. It must be the excellent animal care that does the trick.
Santa Barbara Zoo has not made a huge impression on me. Its location on the California coast with ocean views at some spots is great, but the size of most enclosures is a bit disappointing, especially for the carnivores and the elephants. Thenumber of individual species is in general low, even for the species which live in social groups. Furthermore, they lack mixed species exhibits, except for the odd South American monkey exhibit and some aviaries. The Zoo invests inits educational efforts with major works ongoing building an education centre, but the simple basics are neglected. There are different types of information panels to be found throughout the Zoo, and it seems that they are in the process of changing the style of the panels, while the old ones are providing better info. All in all, geographical information about the species' original habitat is sometimes lacking, which decrease the educational value of the information panels.
Something that confuses me is the role of the Zoo in the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) Species Survival Programme (SSP). According to the AZA website Santa Barbara Zoo co-ordinates the SSP for this species, but they do not have the species on display. In addition, the Zoo's website doesn't mention the oryx as a species currently being managed by the SSP at the Zoo. The Zoo is doing well in their conservation efforts (Channel island fox, and California condor), but it could do with some better promotion for the ignorant visitor, I think.