By Alan Varsik, Assistant Zoo Director
I’ve waited for this day for a long time: I am elated to report that California condors are now on view at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
California Trails is the largest project in the Zoo’s nearly 50-year history. We reconfigured an entire section of the Zoo to feature endangered or threatened species from right here in our own backyard including four juvenile condors.
On Wednesday, Aprill 22, our partners and collaborators gathered to cut the ribbon and formally open the exhibit. We had members of the California Condor Recovery Program, including the coordinator, Jesse Grantham, representatives from the San Ynez Tribe of the Mission Indians (Chumash), plus state, county and city officials. Several volunteers from our nest monitoring program with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service were there. Friends of the California Condor Flying Free attended in their blue tee-shirts. Longtime supporters of both the Zoo and of the condor program talked about what a great day it was.
You couldn’t miss the condors: all four were sitting on a central perch in the exhibit, basking in the sunshine, often extending their wings.
“Back in the early days of the recovery, in the 1980s, if you had told me we would be here today opening this exhibit – I wouldn’t have believed it!” said Jesse in his remarks to the crowd. “The trajectory here is an upward curve. We’re not going to lose the condor.”
I recalled how I saw condors in the wild while I was a student at Cal Poly – and how that experience, seeing condors in person, changed my life. I think that experience helped direct the course of my life.
Now, more than ever, it is important for young people to make that connection. That is one of the reasons we built California Trails. We want our community and visitors to see the magnificent birds, brought back from the brink of extinction, and discover that they too can make a difference in the natural world. That they are the stewards of the future.
On Saturday, I came to the public opening to see how the public reacted to the exhibits. We have “Passport” stations where kids learn about the birds (and the other animals of California Trails) and learn about them and their challenges in the wild. The kids were fascinated by the collection of microtrash we have on display, which was collected by zoo staff on a clean-up day in the Sespe. I hope they’ll make the connection between not littering and helping condors.
It’s been great observing guests who see the birds they’ve heard about for so long, for the first time. Many people simply stop in their tracks when first seeing the birds. It seems as if the condors significantly capture the attention of our guests for unusual amounts of time. Last Friday I noticed one gentleman first thing in morning at the exhibit. He was still there at the end of the day. I mentioned to him that I saw him in the morning and he explained that he couldn’t stop watching the birds. It’s been said that condors are like glue. That once you experience them, they stay with you. I hope that many of our guests have that experience.
As for the condors themselves, I couldn’t be happier with how comfortable they appear in their new home. They take advantage of all the various activities and perching opportunities. They’ve been digging and wading into the water. They have even done some landscaping, picking the flowers.
The privilege of sharing the story of California condor with our zoo guests is unparalleled. It signifies the essence of the role of the modern zoo, to connect, and to inspire.
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