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Santa Barbara Zoo – From Jungle to Jewel
updated: Dec 10, 2011, 9:15 AM
By Billy Goodnick
"It was a Thursday afternoon, around 1959, when I volunteered to help Bob
Kallman and the Jaycees clean the tangle of Eucalyptus, vines, and weeds at the
Child Estate. The house had been razed by the fire department and the place
was a mess." Ted McToldridge was filling me in on a bit of local history as we
strolled the lushly planted paths commanding panoramic views of the Santa Ynez
Mountains, Andree Clark Bird Refuge, and Pacific Ocean. "It was the kick-off
event to develop a new park that would include a community center, ice skating
rink, botanical garden, and farmyard."
Long ago, this area served as a camp for Chumash who fished the coastal
waters. Centuries later, John Beale, a retired New York coffee and tea merchant
built a pink stucco, red tile roof mansion on the site and named it Vegamar,
meaning Star of the Sea. At age 68, he married 35-year-old Lillian Bailey, who
years after Beale's death, married John H. Child, hence the more recent estate
name. Through the Great Depression, Mrs. Child extended her compassion to
dozens of out-of-work "hobos" who rode the nearby rails. She allowed them to
live in shacks on the property, governed by their own mayor, provided they lived
respectful, sober lives. Locals called it Childville, but it was also known as the
Hobo Jungle. The hobos have passed away, but "jungle" still applies.
The site is now the home of the Santa Barbara Zoo (sbzoo.org). The farmyard got a wee bit carried away, now featuring
condors, capybaras, snow leopards, meerkats, gibbons, poisonous snakes,
and a few hundred other members of kingdom Animalia. You won't find anyone
practicing their triple Lutz, but there is a temporary toboggan hill for the kids on
the upper lawn. And exotic botanical wonders from around the world embellish
the exhibits and keep elephants and gorillas well fed.
I didn't ask whether McToldridge's career was inspired by Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran
The Zoo." But unlike the story's protagonist, young Gerald McGrew (who only
imagined he'd stock his realm with "an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo / A Nerkle
a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!), Ted did rise to become the director of a well-
respected, beloved institution. Though the community and his peers laud his
leadership, imagination, and dedication, he insists that the Zoo was "built by the
love of the Community."
One of the joys of visiting our zoo is drinking in the robust diversity of plants
that form the backdrop for the exhibits. Though there are still remnants of the
original estate landscaping from the 1890s - a fiercely barbed Monkey Puzzle
tree, sinuous Wisteria vines, and a massive Dragon Tree are standouts - much
of what we see today is the result of McToldridge's self-taught, but sophisticated
landscape design sense. As additional evidence of the community's generosity,
many of the earliest plants came from Lotusland surplus and contributions
scavenged by local hort legend, Turk Hessellund.
If you're a lover of gardens and things botanical looking for things to do over the
holidays, how about taking the kids or out-of-town visitors to the Zoo for a slice of
Santa Barbara's green side? Here's a sample of what you'll see.
In case arriving Zoo guests doubt they're in Santa Barbara, palm trees greet
them at the entrance. I counted at least a dozen species throughout the grounds.
Once inside the gates, visitors pass through the Ted McToldridge Administrative
Center, dedicated to him upon his retirement in 1997. The offices, gift shop,
snack bar, and simulated wetland pond are framed by fluffy Queen and towering
Mexican Fan palms. Further into the property, on the seaward side of the knoll,
newer palm trees mingle with some of the estate's original stand. (Ted shared
that some of these palms might have found their way into the Zoo's collection
from the City's 60s-era holding nursery just down the hill. We're hoping that the
statute of limitations has lapsed.)
As might be expected from an institution dedicated to educating the public
about wildlife and their habitat, the Zoo takes environmental stewardship and
sustainable practices very seriously. No worries about whether they're reducing
their impact on landfills: Nearly 100% of their greenwaste is consumed by their
animals, with elephants at the top of the food chain (bamboo and banana leaves
don't stand a chance!), followed by giraffes, gorillas, and other hungry critters.
The irrigation system uses recycled water and polluted runoff from the exhibits
receives top priority. Water from the animal exhibits is aerated and cleaned via a
large spray fountain in the moat around the gibbon island.
Clockwise from upper left: A striking combination
of Kalanchoe ‘Modoc', Crassula tetragona, Senecio mandraliscae, and
Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire'.
Everywhere you look, there are planting vignettes that animate the grounds.
Since 1997, Ted has been ably assisted by Abel Landeros, Director of
Facilities and Horticulture. Landeros, his crew, and an enthusiastic group
of volunteers have been installing and tending to the plants. Community
members are invited to sign up and train as volunteers to assist the
grounds crews. And in April, the Zoo To Do welcomes anyone who wants
to pitch in (volunteer opportunities…).
It would be fabulous if every animal exhibit could be landscaped using vegetation
from each animal's native habitat, but there are limitations to what can be
successfully grown, even in our plant-friendly climate. But the Zoo does a pretty
good job of simulating the authentic surroundings, like the Asian jungle vibe of
the walk-through aviary. Ferns and pygmy date palms provide cover for many
birds and the cascading waterfall cools the air.
Poetically named Verbena lilicina ‘De la Mina'
(Cedros Island Verbena) is a Baja California native that looks like English
lavender and smells like carnations.
Outside of the California condor exhibit, the landscaping draws on a native
palette created by local award-winning landscape architects, Van Atta
Associates. The firm has been helping the Zoo develop and implement their
master plan since the late 90s, when the new CEO, Rich Block took the helm.
In the animal world, Africa means lions, and what better choice around their
compound than an assortment of aloes? This showy genus is distinguished by
succulent, water-filled stems and foliage, needs very little supplemental water,
and make a great choice for fire-prone areas.
It was gratifying to see that the Zoos lions have been paying attention to the
water conservation message I've been beating everyone over the head with for
years. Here's mama lion enjoying an unmowed, non-traditional meadow, caring
not one iota what the neighbors think. No fossil fuel fumes and no brain-rattling
racket from power tools.
At first I thought it was a botanical joke, planting a palm tree in the penguin
exhibit: "I get it…jungle plants intrepidly braving the unbearable harshness of
the Antarctic!" Funny. But I learned that the Humboldt penguins that live at the
Zoo populate the shores of northern Chile and even Peru, locales that share our
balmy Mediterranean climate.
So if you're looking for ideas for new plantings in your own garden, you can take
a stroll at the Santa Barbara Zoo sometime soon. You never know when you'll
want to landscape your own backyard silverback gorilla compound.
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at
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