Volunteers in Training : Santa Ana Zoo Quite a Campus for Tour Guides

Times Staff Writer

The pigtailed macaque bared his teeth and flicked his ears forward in a classic defensive posture. Dropping to the floor of his cage and swinging up to a branch, he took a running leap at the wire and shook it furiously.

"OK, he's showing the teeth now. He's not happy," said Jennifer Rigby.

"Big teeth," remarked Bill O'Neil.

For O'Neil and 24 other county residents, Tuesday was the first day of a two-week program of training as volunteer guides at the 21-acre Santa Ana Zoo. Classes teach the details about each of the zoo's 107 species, through lectures on animal behavior and a final examination, to be followed by graduation ceremonies March 26.

Rigby, an associate curator at the zoo, took the student guides, called docents in zoo lingo, on a tour of the grounds, and answered questions during a two-hour presentation Tuesday morning. She said the addition of volunteer guides is part of an expansion of the zoo.

She said plans include a "Monkey Island," proposed for a greenbelt on the southeast side of the park, a lab that will serve both as an educational tool and "a scientific resource laboratory for Orange County," and the addition of two rare snow leopards next year. Unfortunately, Rigby said, the zoo will soon be losing its lone Bengal tigress. "She's just getting too big for us, so she'll be going to the Los Angeles Zoo, and probably transferred somewhere from there," she said.

Despite any expansion, Rigby said, the Santa Ana Zoo can't hope to rival others in the area (the Los Angeles Zoo has 548 species, and the San Diego Zoo has about 710), largely because of its site, sandwiched between the Saddleback Inn and the Santa Ana Freeway.

"We absolutely don't want to become another Los Angeles or San Diego, but we are the only zoo of this magnitude in Orange County," she said. "And we do have quite an extensive primate collection (16 species)."

O'Neil, 63, an electrician retired from Southern California Edison, said his interest in animals began when, in the course of his work, he encountered snakes, opossums and other creatures in outlying substations. He and his wife, Ginnie, 60, both signed up for the guide program.

"So I'd bring some home and we'd keep 'em for a little while," O'Neil said of the critters he found in the wild. "Then I'd turn 'em loose, usually in the Santa Ana River bed--but Ginnie wouldn't let me keep the 'possums."

Class Tour Planned

His wife raised her eyebrows at the thought of a wild marsupial in her Costa Mesa home. She said her daughter is an elementary school teacher, and they hope to give a tour for her class. "I think animals are much nicer than most people," she said.

Art Greenberg, 71, worked as a guide at the Los Angeles Zoo and wanted to continue the job after moving to Laguna Hills. "Once you get to my age, you want to give something back," he said. "I love kids, and I'd love to work on that Zoomobile (a van used to take zoo animals to visit schools)."

Sandy Davis, 47, of Huntington Beach, said her interest was piqued by a jungle safari about 150 miles from Nairobi, Kenya. Although she did get to see some wild animals, including monkeys that roamed their campsite, the excursion fell short of her expectations.

"It was disappointing because of the drought," she noted. "I expected to see herds and herds."

20,000 Visitors

The guides' tour groups will consist mainly of students--about 20,000 visit each year. Among the zoo's attractions are a golden eagle, two black bears, a red fox, a pair of mountain lions, alpacas and peacocks. Each volunteer guide is expected to serve at least six hours a month for a year.

Rigby said reservations for tours must be made two weeks in advance. The zoo is open daily. Admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for students and half-price for nonprofit groups.

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