Select a Zoo



santa barbara zoo ocean viewWith 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.

santa barbara zoo construction siteNext 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 (video), shot in Santa Bar­bara Zoo dur­ing my visit.

santa barbara zoo elephant enclosureThe 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.

santa barbara zoo recreation meadowBefore 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.

santa barbara zoo channel island fox enclosureThen 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 chap­ar­ral, 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.

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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