“W hy doesn’t the Zoo have zebras?” “How come there are penguins in the old sea lion exhibit?”
We often get questions from guests about our ever-changing animal collection. Most people have no idea how we decide species to exhibit, and how the Zoo obtains its animals.
Fifty years ago when the Santa Barbara zoo opened, most zoos exhibited whatever exotic critters that they could beg, borrow, or get in trade. Our two Asian elephants Sujatha and Little Mac, for example, were traded for California sea lions with a zoo in India.
These days, there is a much more complex procedure for deciding which species zoos exhibit, organized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) . The 222 accredited zoos and aquariums around the country work together to plan for both the long and short term.
Few animals are taken from the wild today, and exchanging money or bartering for species is very rare. Each species is managed cooperatively through an AZA Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). They balance requests for species with the needs of the entire collection.
”Few animals are taken from the wild today, and exchanging money or bartering for species is very rare. Each species is managed cooperatively through an AZA Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). They balance requests for species with the needs of the entire collection.
Our snow leopards are a good example of how this works. In 2002, when Cats of Africa opened, an elderly lion named Kali lived in what is now the snow leopard exhibit. Given her age, it was deemed best that she stay there until she passed away, and then our long-term plan was to have an Asian cat species in that space.
But Kali was a feisty feline senior citizen. Two years later, at age 19, she successfully moved up to Cats of Africa and was a wonderful companion to Docha, our hand-reared lion cub. She lived another three years in her new home.
Once Kali moved, we went to the AZA Felid TAG saying “we have space, what is your greatest need?” They replied “snow leopards.” We said “we’ll take two.”
The exhibit space itself also plays a role, as with the current Humboldt penguin exhibit. Built for California sea lions, it has an underwater viewing window and rock haul-outs. In the early 2000s, the Zoo’s elderly sea lions began to pass away, until just 30-year old Cubby remained. Why didn’t we just get more?
“Rather than replace sea lions one by one, it made sense to go with a whole colony of animals,” says Sheri Horiszny, our Director of Animal Programs.
That’s where the penguins come in. The AZA’s Marine Mammal TAG moved Cubby to Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas, which wanted sea lions. We did some minor renovations, and welcomed our penguin flock into that space.
I asked our Zoo Director Nancy McToldridge about this process. She says, “We have a small, eclectic collection representing the biodiversity of the world, and we want to keep that.”
What about zebras? “We simply don’t have the space,” she says. “We have more than 500 animals and only 30 acres!”