Cuddly otters and foxes, colorful macaws, and man-eating cats, no, it’s not Halloween in I.V. , and you won’t want to get up close and friendly with all of these creatures. At the Santa Barbara Zoo, there are over 600 animals, 150 different species and, as the train speech goes, a couple hundred “fun loving, good looking, and extremely humble people.” As a member of the staff at the zoo, I cannot promise in the least to be impartial in this “escape.” However, I can promise to impart on you a bit of inside wisdom.
The zoo itself is actually tied in its history to UCSB. Back in the old days, before Del Playa, I.V. and Freebirds (when UCSB was actually in Santa Barbara), the land that became the zoo was the site of a UCSB fraternity. Lillian Child, the woman who owned the estate, found that she was not able to make full use of the land, and allowed several of the homeless men in the community to build a shanty town on the property. After her death in 1952, the city leased the land to UCSB, or Santa Barbara State College as it was called at the time. The mansion became a frat house, and may have resembledAnimal House as in the film.
The zoo is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. I recommend that you come by on a weekday, because unlike some other parks that have reduced activities or staffing during the week, we run at full steam everyday. Lines to the train and food stands are shorter, and you do not have to share the viewing decks with as many people.
When you get to the zoo, there are a couple things that you absolutely must do before you leave, the most important of which is the train ride. A close second is the penguin feeding at 2:30 p.m most days.
If you like apes and monkeys, make sure to come to the zoo on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, when our two youngest and most active White-handed Gibbons, Eliot and Riley, are on exhibit. They are far more athletic than their parents and are a blast to watch. In addition to the gibbon exhibit, make sure to swing by the giraffe exhibit and check out the herd. Although our most famous inhabitant, Gemina, the crooked-neck giraffe, is no longer around, you can still get up and close to the rest of the herd by purchasing a giraffe feeding ticket. For four dollars, you can feed the giraffes. It will be the fastest four dollars you have ever spent and, yes, that includes Jager shots. However, it may possibly be the coolest four dollars you have ever spent. Check it out as an 18-inch tongue reaches out and wraps around your fingers only to steal the treat from between them. Goma and Kivu live in the Western Lowland Gorilla exhibit. The two silverback half-brothers from Buffalo, New York, are absolutely fascinating to watch. Their exhibit is equipped with a huge viewing window where you can get on the same ground as the brothers and greet them face-to-face.
Regardless of what path you take, make sure to come to the train station and say hello to your friendly neighborhood train driver. They will take you around the perimeter of the zoo and into the backstage areas, where you can view some of our off-exhibit areas, as well as get closer to a lion than you ever want to again. It’s just like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, except with actual animals.
Finally, as you leave the property, remember to poke your head into the admissions office and mention how your experience was, and maybe suggest that this train-driving columnist deserves a raise.