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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.


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