The OC Zoo in Orange has expanded its ‘pawprint’ to house a new Large Mammal Exhibit and five large felines for families to enjoy year round.
A waterfall flows through the rocky scenery of Santiago’s new digs. He’s still exploring the space, but the sound seems soothing. That, and the meaty treat he gets from a zookeeper who has stopped by to give him a quick health check.
It’s barely been 48 hours, but the OC Zoo’s new big cat exhibit appears to be a hit. Especially with its oldest cat.
Santiago, an 11-year-old mountain lion found orphaned in Oregon in the fall of 2011, has been a longtime star at the zoo and now is one of five big cats — including three mountain lion cubs and a 2-year-old jaguar — who are about to spend their first summer in a greatly expanded and more stimulating space.
The Large Mammal Exhibit is a two-acre expansion, the largest in the zoo’s history, that includes two separate areas that can be adjusted into four separate spaces, with the rocky walls and waterfall, a pool and areas where the cats can climb, sunbathe and hide, as well as a natural-looking bridge that allows them to move up and over visitors while still being in view.
It’s what the zoo describes as “immersed landscape,” where the cats have living space much more like natural habitat that also provides the public the opportunity to see them in a more realistic way. Healthier for the cats, more educational for the visitor.
“We’ve always spoken to people about mountain lions,” says Marcy Crede-Booth, OC Zoo’s curator of education. “People will listen for a while, but the exciting part of coming to the zoo is just ‘Oh, I saw the animal. This is cool. This is fun.’ But the educational part is sometimes a conundrum.
“You want to get the point across, but not go too far and they get bored with you. For this new exhibit area, it really gives us the opportunity to tell more of the story about local mountain lions and how they’re facing a very difficult time and what we can do about it,” she says. “And with the focus on different mountain lions, different ages and sizes, we can [talk] a little bit more in depth about them.”
The new exhibit expands on the zoo’s mission of animals native to Orange County and the Southwest. In many ways, it’s as much sanctuary as zoo, with virtually all of the animals having been rescued, injured or confiscated and unable to be released back into the wild.
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“We thrive on being able to educate people on the animals we have here. Nowadays, kids don’t get out into nature as much. It’s really great to be able to teach them about native animals and what you should do, because we have to live among these animals cohesively. The coyotes were here first — the bobcats, the mountain lions — and we’ve sort of interrupted the natural flow of things,” she says.
Sharing the new surroundings with Santiago is Ray, an approximately 9-month-old cougar recovering from being hit by a car in late 2021; the two younger female cubs — to be named through a public contest this summer — found orphaned just a few weeks old at an office complex in Thousand Oaks in December 2021; and Ziggy, a 2-year-old jaguar, born at a zoo in Arizona and also a recent arrival to Orange County.
“We don’t have some of the flashy animals that some other zoos have, like a giraffe or an elephant, but we’re really trying to tell a story here about our native wildlife,” Crede-Booth says. “I thought I would never see this and it just means a lot personally. I love that we can give a home to these animals that do need one, because other places don’t want a coyote or a bobcat. We’re also giving so many birds of prey a home who wouldn’t have one. This is where they get to spend their days and our zoo staff care so much about our animals. Because we are small, we are very close with all of them.”
The OC Zoo is located inside Irvine Regional Park in Orange. Hours: 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Tickets are $2. For more info, go to ocparks.com/oc-zoo.
By Shawn Price