The new entrance to the Orange County Zoo was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dec. 14, held minutes before a long line of visitors were admitted to the annual Christmas at the Zoo event.

Supervisor Don Wagner announced that the usual $2 per person entry fee would be waived for the day, and zoo-goers were given coupons for a free ice cream from a nearby concession. “Nothing says ice cream like a cold, gray and cloudy day,” the supervisor joked, reflecting on the morning’s weather.

Gray skies did not dampen the holiday spirit, as critters searched for treats hidden around decorated Christmas trees installed in each exhibit, children swarmed the crafts table and everyone posed for pictures with Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves holding small animals.   

Getting better all the time
The new entrance is part of a multi-year, multi-faceted upgrade and expansion plan the county approved in 2013. Perhaps the most welcome addition to the zoo landscape are restrooms located near the new entrance. The lack of restrooms within the facility was identified as a critical deficiency in a 2006 grand jury report. Before now, visitors were directed to restrooms outside of the zoo on the far end of its parking lot.

The zoo is home to mostly native wildlife, many of them orphaned, injured, or otherwise unable to survive on their own in the wild. They come from California Fish and Wildlife or other licensed rescue facilities or sanctuaries. Nestled within the boundaries of Irvine Regional Park in East Orange, the zoo was once the best-kept secret in the county. Although its small size offered up-close viewing encounters with mountain lions, brown bears, eagles, beavers, bobcats and reptiles, few residents were aware of its existence.

That has changed. Over the last decade, new management, an enthusiastic staff and renewed county interest in the zoo have introduced more wildlife exhibits, educational programs, activities, a petting zoo and personal interactions with “ambassador” animals. Zoo attendance has swelled to over 285,000 per year.

Room to roam
The next major expansion project is a two-acre large mammal exhibit slated for an unused portion of the property. It features four separate habitats, a crossover bridge, numerous viewing sites and a keeper and animal-friendly off-exhibit facility, where the large cats can be cared for after hours.  

The zoo’s current mountain lions, eight-year-old Santiago and Modjeska, will be the first to move in to the new habitat. “The exhibit design gives us the flexibility to move the mountain lions from one area to another at first," says Zoo Manager Donald Ziegler. “But we’ll have habitat for more animals, and I have plans to make good use of that space.”  

The same contractor who designed and built the new zoo entrance, Rudolph and Slatten, was awarded the contract for the new exhibit. Work on the $7.4 million project is expected to begin in June or July, with an anticipated completion date in December. “Or January 2021,” Ziegler acknowledges. “It’s a major project, and there’s a lot to be done.” 

Supervisor Don Wagner cuts the ribbon to ceremonially open the new zoo entrance.  He is flanked by, from left, Curator of Education Marcy Crede-Booth, volunteer Jim Haiker, Santa and Mrs. Claus, Zookeeper Susan Miles, Zoo Curator Lauren Serrano and Zoo Manager Donald Zeigler. Photos by Tony Richards

Upgrades and expansion projects enhance OC Zoo experience for folks and fauna alike

January 2020