Nestled in the heart of Irvine Regional Park, the OC Zoo specializes in caring for animals native to Orange County and the Southwestern U.S. that have been injured, orphaned from their parents in the wild or rescued from people who own them illegally.
For many of the animals, the zoo represents a second chance at life.
“If the animals aren’t able to go back into the wild, we give them a home,” says zoo manager Donald Ziegler. “Providing them with exceptional care is a commitment we take very seriously.”
As part of that commitment, the zoo opened a new Large Mammal Exhibit that provides 2 acres of habitat for some of the facility’s most popular residents: Sage and Poppy, mountain lion cubs found without their mother under a bench at an office complex in Thousand Oaks; Ray, a mountain lion struck by a car in Northern California; and Ziggy and Mickey, jaguar brothers relocated from a zoo in Arizona.
“They are fan favorites and have a loyal following,” zoo curator Lauren Serrano says of the jaguars, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers endangered.
The exhibit recreates the cats’ natural habitat: There are leafy trees, cascading waterfalls and meandering streams enclosed by rock formations. On a recent morning, Ziggy roamed his enclosure and leaped atop a large rock, searching out food provided by a zookeeper. Nearby, Ray lounged in the sun near a climbing platform. A flock of wild Amazon parrots squawked overhead.
“The new exhibit is a great opportunity to see the animals up close in a natural setting,” Serrano says.
The exhibit consists of four connected enclosures, each measuring 2,000 square feet. Aerial animal bridges arch over visitor walkways, allowing the cats to travel between enclosures and providing unique viewing opportunities to zoo guests.
The OC Zoo traces its roots back to 1905, and the current facility opened in 1985. The new exhibit is considered the largest expansion in the zoo’s history. OC Parks allocated $1.9 million in state grant funding to help offset the project’s $9 million total cost.
“The exhibit has improved the zoo quite a bit,” Ziegler says.
The upgrades have made the county-operated zoo an increasingly popular destination. Attendance is up by more than 50,000 visitors from a year prior, according to zoo officials.
Admission is $2 for visitors 3 years and older and free for children under 2.
“Our zoo is a great place to learn about local wildlife,” Serrano says.