Sixty-five Years Later... 7


Joseph Edward Prentice was very clear in 1949 when he stipulated that his gift of 12 acres of land to the City of Santa Ana was to establish a park in his name with the caveat that there needed to be at least 50 monkeys on the grounds at all times. It seems Prentice had a fascination for monkeys and kept several at his home. With the gift of land, Prentice Park was born and the monkeys became the beginnings of what would become the Santa Ana Zoo. Opening in 1952, the zoo has never wavered from that dictate.

“We actually keep an average of 55 monkeys from a variety of species at the zoo just in case something happens and we lose some,” says Santa Ana Zoo Director Kent Yamaguchi, who has been with the zoo for 30 years and Director since 2009.

When Prentice died in 1959, the zoo was well on its way to becoming a success. The City of Santa Ana acquired eight additional acres in the early 1970s to upgrade and expand the zoo, which eventually brought accreditation by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

The zoo originally was a random collection of animals but now focuses on the wildlife of Central and South America.

The history of its growth reveals that a children’s zoo was soon built after the launch, and the Flight Aviary followed in 1962. In 1983, the amphitheater was completed and in 1990, three major events came to pass: the Flight Aviary was upgraded and renamed the Jack Lynch Aviary after the man who was responsible for seeing it built and maintained; Amazon’s Edge, which opened in 1992, replicates a section of the Brazilian rainforest consisting of a water moat and a forested riverbank set against a cliff face featuring howler monkeys, black-necked swans and crested screamers; and the Colors of the Amazon Aviary, which opened in 1996, displays a variety of South American birds in a lushly planted habitat with meandering streams. In 2004, the Crean Family Farm was introduced focusing on rare breeds of farm animals with a two-story red barn centerpiece to house the larger species. The exhibit, Tierra de las Pampas (“Land of the Grasses”), opened in 2010 to showcase giant anteaters and greater rheas and guanacos, and the Rainforest Exhibit, a small exhibit which represents the Amazon, is home to white-faced saki monkeys and green iguanas. The Ocelot Basin, which was introduced in 2015, is home to a breeding pair of Brazilian Ocelots, who have already had a baby, which found its home at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Friends of the Santa Ana Zoo (FOSAZ), established in 1972, has been instrumental in raising funds for the zoo by partnering with the city in a combined $4.2 million annual budget. FOSAZ Executive Director Cathi Decker lauds the staff, board of directors, and volunteers and their commitment to the zoo.

“Everyone is passionate about the cause,” she says. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Decker brought an extensive resume helpful to the zoo when she was hired in 1996 to work in the membership and events departments. She received her undergraduate degree with honors in Communication from UC San Diego, completed courses towards a Masters in Public Relations and Advertising at Cal State Fullerton and a Certificate in Business Management and Fundraising from UC Irvine. She developed vital skills from her previous positions at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and SeaWorld, as well as a director’s position at one of the largest animal rescue nonprofits in Southern California, Cats and Dogs in Need.

“I grew up loving animals,” Decker says. “Mom told me the animals gathered around me growing up.”

Decker actually volunteered at the Santa Ana Zoo before she was hired.

“I was willing to take a cut in pay to work at the zoo,” she says. “It was a passion for me, and I knew I could make a difference.”

When Decker became FOSAZ executive director in 2005, within the first year she raised $1 million, increased the board from 10 to 16 members and revamped the Macaw Exhibit.

FOSAZ is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its big fundraiser, “Zoofari,” on Saturday, August 26th. The black-tie or “safari wear” benefit is always a standout with guests greeted by various zoo animals and their docent “handlers.” Hosted cocktails and a signature drink follows, with jam-packed silent and live auctions, dinner on the zoo’s spacious back lawn and dancing under the stars. This year’s soiree will raise funds for the River Otter Habitat and zoo improvements.

As the zoo grew, its mission has zeroed in on three areas: recreation, education and conservation. The zoo is home to more than 260 animals, including 57 of the most interesting and engaging monkeys and several endangered species. Some of the many programs that educate children about the animals include the Critters for Conservation animal presentation in the Conservation Education Theater, the new arrivals at the zoo, the school class programs, the scholarship bus tours for underserved children, and many more.

Recreation at the zoo includes the two Zoofari Express children’s trains with their electric-powered locomotives as well as a Conservation Carrousel with a 33-animal line-up and a wheelchair-accessible Swan Chariot. Under construction is the zoo’s “Fifty Monkey” Ferris Wheel, due to open before the year’s end, which will contain 15 fully-enclosed thatched roofed gondolas featuring a distinctive endangered monkey. Decker is pleased that the projected net income of close to $1 million annually from the Train, Carrousel and Wheel will provide revenue to update the monkey exhibits.

Yamaguchi, who received bachelor degrees in Biology and Applied Ecology from UC Irvine, says the zoo is working on an updated master plan, which will be presented at year’s end.

“We want to focus on teaching and inspiring people to care about and conserve wild places for the animals and the people who live there,” he says. “So, instead of just being an animal menagerie, our animal habitats will tell the story of the animals and how zoos are working to save animals from extinction.”

Yamaguchi’s passion comes through when he says:

“We are a community zoo. That’s what I love about working here–seeing the families with their young children. We want to continue to provide a quiet, safe getaway, where you can get close to the animals.”

In short, the Santa Ana Zoo, which attracts 250,000 visitors annually, is a wonderful place to visit for children and adults to share time together learning about the animals, plants and the environment. It is also a great place to host kids’ birthday parties or attend the Sunset at the Zoo Summer Concert Series, where you can bring a picnic and enjoy live music, beer tasting, craft tables, the train and carrousel rides and, of course, the animals.

Decker, who oversees approximately 50 FOSAZ employees, sums things up:

“You know you’re having fun when you don’t know what time it is!”

1801 E. Chestnut Avenue, 
Santa Ana, CA 92701