The fast and furry-ous rise of San Juan Capistrano–based ZOOMARS is a story within a story.
It’s a place for horses, rabbits, goats, and of course, guinea pigs. It’s a place for kids to play and learn. It’s a place with a long and unique history.
It’s ZOOMARS Petting Zoo in San Juan Capistrano, where Gillie Guinea Pig’s story began.
“Last year I launched the children’s book, ‘The Tale of Gillie Guinea Pig,’ about a little guinea pig who is stuck in a pet shop and escapes to ZOOMARS after hearing kids in the store talk about this magical place with 100 guinea pigs,” says Carolyn Franks, who has owned the petting zoo for the past 15 years. “We made a life-size plush toy Gillie, too. Everything sold out instantly, and then, last November, Gillie won a Brass Ring Award at the attraction industry’s premier trade show, IAAPA, beating Disney and SeaWorld in the souvenir plush toy competition.”
But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time, not so long ago, when Franks didn’t know how she’d keep the zoo open. Somehow she did.
“My ex-husband and I bought [the petting zoo] to add our collection of exotic birds to the mix of farm animals and create a one-of-a-kind bird park with free-flying parrots,” she says. “However we ran into some permitting problems with the city since the zoo was in a historic district, and then, the recession hit. Things went south for a while but I battled back.”
During that time, Franks went through a divorce, a foreclosure on her home and incurred some serious debt to keep the zoo running.
“At the time, I had maybe five employees and we all wore many hats,” she says. “Things were tough. We were getting 200 to 300 visitors a week and I dreamed of a $1,000 day. Today we get 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a week!”
She and her staff got through it all and now are entering the next phase for the petting zoo: new ownership. Franks says she reached out to local developer Dan Almquist about buying the petting zoo from her in order to take it to a new level as part of the agrarian-themed retail center, the River Street Marketplace, which was recently approved by the city of San Juan Capistrano. The River Street Marketplace will be located in the 5-acre property — formerly the site of Ito Nursery — neighboring the 1-acre petting zoo.
“I believe that after 15 years, I have taken ZOOMARS as far as I can on my own,” says Franks. “I see how much Dan Almquist and his company Frontier [Real Estate Investments] truly care about historic restoration and preservation in San Juan and they have the investors and the construction know-how to revitalize old buildings.”
Though Franks’ ownership of the petting zoo is coming to an end as of the beginning of 2020, her connection to ZOOMARS is far from over. She will stay on as a consultant, and is continuing Gillie Guinea Pig’s storyline with even more avenues than before.
“I launched ‘The Tale of Gillie Guinea Pig’ on June 3, 2018,” says Franks. “We sold all 5,000 books within a few months and the toys were gone almost immediately. We knew we were onto something big.”
And there’s music too — two albums to be exact. Teaming up with local musicians, Franks produced “We Are Not Hamsters” and “Ponies Don’t Surf,” totaling 18 original songs.
And Gillie’s adventures are only beginning, though Franks can’t say too much yet. She can say that she’s creating a live-action/animated series called “Go Gillie Go!” following Gillie and his six guinea pig pals, on cross-country road trips in an old Airstream motorhome they call The Pig Pod.
“The oddball mix of rodents visit famous landmarks and camp out at wacky roadside attractions,” she says. “While we have episodes in animation, there is also this reality show element where Gillie and Miss Carolyn — as I’m called in the book — along with all the guinea pigs, actually do travel the country in a vintage Airstream.”
The Airstream has already arrived at ZOOMARS so kids can see it with Gillie Guinea Pig.
“We are already doing pop-up petting zoos at fairs and festivals, and kids can visit Gillie and his friends during the month of December at the Sawdust Winter Fantasy in Laguna Beach,” she says.
Besides entertaining families with Gillie’s stories, Franks also wants to educate about guinea pigs.
“There is so much to love about them,” she says.
She describes them as very much like children — cute, curious, playful and social.
“Kids and guinea pigs also share a sweet-natured innocence that creates an undeniable bond,“ she says.
She says they’re endlessly entertaining and make great pets.
“They show affection by rubbing noses and communicate through a series of chirps, purrs, whistles and wheeks,” she says. “When the little critters are happy, they display what’s called ‘popcorning’ — jumping straight in the air.”
She says each of the 100 guinea pigs at ZOOMARS has a name and is considered family. All of the guinea pigs are either rescued or purchased through reputable breeders.
“Last weekend we rescued some after getting a call from a vet tech who found them in a dumpster at a Pep Boys,” she says.
Franks also wants to offer inspiration for anyone wanting to write a book, launch a business or start something new.
“Many people who visit my zoo often ask how I came to write a children’s book and share ideas they have to write one too. They just don’t know how to go about doing it. Newsflash: Neither did I. I also didn’t know how to produce an album, make a toy or write a show. My not-so-secret secret? YouTube,” she says. “For what it’s worth, I also didn’t know much about running a petting zoo, not to mention, I’m allergic to animals! So my advice to those mom authors in the making: Don’t let obstacles get in your way. Creative minds need to speak and good children’s stories need to be written. Like Gillie Guinea Pig says, ‘Anything is possible with love and a carrot stick.’”
By Jessica Peralta
Photography by Ralph Palumbo
“The Tale of Gillie Guinea Pig”
Written by Carolyn Franks | Illustrated by Michele G. Dodds
Carolyn’s book follows the adventure of a sweet little guinea pig named Gillie who hears about an enchanted petting zoo from children talking in the pet shop where he lives. One evening, with the help of his friends, Gillie makes a daring escape to find this cavy utopia. Join Gillie on an exciting journey where he finds his inner courage that lands him a special job at ZOOMARS and a wonderful place to call home.
Gillie’s book and life-size plush toy can be purchased at ZOOMARS Petting Zoo.
ZOOMARS Christmas Wonderland
ZOOMARS Petting Zoo will transform into a Christmas Wonderland this December with some seasonably cool events and activities. Located in the heart of San Juan Capistrano’s historic district this magical little petting farm has been there for 40 years. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, you’ll find over 200 animals.
Nov. 29-Dec. 24
Starting Thanksgiving weekend, you’ll find a Christmas tree lot with hundreds of Elf Trees. These specially-grown trees from Oregon are only 3-feet tall and the perfect size for little ones. Each tree links to an interactive website where kids can hear Christmas stories from the elves, play holiday games and find out more about the farm their tree came from along with the elf who tended to their tree.
Live Nativity Show
Dec. 7 at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
This is the most magical night of the year at the petting zoo when the “Wonder of Christmas” takes place in the Farmyard. This is a living nativity show with 50 participants from Pathway to Hope who reenact the manger scene. All of the actors and actresses are children and adults with special needs.
Meet the Grinch
Dec. 14, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Trouble will be stirring as a pot-bellied, snub-nosed creature with a cat-like face comes knocking on the barnyard door. No, not a warm furry animal from the petting zoo. The Grinch will stop by with all the signature antics and sourpuss sass he’s known for. Don’t miss the chance to meet the avocado-green giant who will be passing through to cause a little mischief … and maybe spread some Christmas cheer.
Visit with Santa
Dec. 15, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
What better way to get the Yuletide party started? Get your list ready kids. Tell Santa all your wishes when he and Mrs. Claus visit with the animals and come to spread their Christmas cheer. You can find them in the ZOOMARS Mini Christmas Tree Farm, which makes for the most picturesque moment.
For more information, visit zoomars.com or call the zoo at 949-831-6550.