After three months of being closed to the public in response to the pandemic, the Santa Barbara Zoo reopened in June.
“The Zoo has been an amazing respite where families can congregate in a safe way,” says Board Chair George Leis. “That has been very meaningful for me; a touch of normalcy in a very confused world.”
But it isn’t just humans finding respite at Santa Barbara’s world-renowned zoo. Through its conservation programs and the exciting opening of its new Australian Walkabout exhibit in summer 2021, the Zoo is busy protecting animal species ranging from California’s Western snowy plover to Australia’s Bennett’s wallaby.
The Zoo’s President and CEO, Rich Block, points to the Zoo’s now 18-year commitment to bring the California condor back from the brink of extinction. Part of a broad coalition of other zoos and federal agencies, the Santa Barbara Zoo has helped bring the population back from a mere 22 birds in 1987 to more than 500 today. In wild condor country (such as the Sespe Wilderness), Zoo staff can regularly be seen scaling sheer cliffs to get eyes on chicks and ensure their safety. And they assist in rounding up the birds each year to check the population’s health.
“The people who work with them know these birds like avid soap opera fans,” Block says. “They know all the characters, know all the bonds, and all the cheating. It’s an incredible drama.”
Within the Zoo’s walls, the deaths in 2018 and 2019 of beloved elephants Sujatha and Little Mac created a physical and emotional void that impacted the entire community. The Zoo’s experienced Animal Care team, along with outside partners, researched a multitude of options before narrowing down species and experiences that would be best for the animals and Zoo guests.
Rooted in its conservation focus, the Zoo team landed on an “up close and down under” experience which will allow visitors to actually walk through the exhibit and get close to kangaroos, wallabies, and emus. While Australia has incredible biodiversity – more than 100,000 species of animals have been described so far – the wildfires of 2019-20 helped propel it to the dubious distinction of having the most rapid rate of mammal extinctions worldwide.
“This new immersive exhibit is exciting for us and our Zoo guests. It perfectly complements our mission of bringing people and animals together for safe, inspiring, educational, and fun experiences. This will be a totally different Zoo opportunity, providing a wonderful added new dimension for visitors while supporting our commitment to conservation,” commented Block.