After dwindling donations halted construction of a seal exhibit at the Orange County Zoo, Orange County supervisors agreed last week to pump $100,000 into the project to try to complete it by fall.
The additional funds were approved by supervisors during negotiations for the county's $4.6-billion budget, which begins July 1.
Robert Everakes, head of Orange County's Zoological Society, said public donations for the seal exhibit have slowed to a trickle even as the county spends $800 a month to board four seals at Sea World in San Diego.
"We have had difficulty reaching corporations and obtaining grants and donations," he said.
Once small and underused, the zoo has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with the help of the society, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for such well-known exhibits as Samson the bear's den. The zoo is in Irvine Regional Park in Orange.
The facility is still feeling the effects of the county's 1994 bankruptcy. At least 11%, or about $4 million, of the parks' annual budget is diverted for bankruptcy relief, which has cut into the zoo's budget.
By cashing in on the public's love of animals--especially celebrity animals such as Samson, who died last month--the society has spent nearly $200,000 on Samson's den and $115,000 on a home for a pair of beavers. Both exhibits have been favorites of the zoo's more than 300,000 annual visitors.
"Having the supervisors step up to the plate, that's very generous," Everakes said. "I think that's an indication of the value of the park and of the zoo. They must be very aware of what we've accomplished, and were willing to participate and help us with this.
"I cannot express to you how great this is," he said.
Private donations have been the backbone of the county's park system, beginning with a gift of 160 acres by James Irvine II in 1897 that led to the park's creation.
Zoo Director Forrest de Spain said the society had raised about $30,000 for the seal exhibit but construction halted recently when the contractor, Creative Rock Concepts of Laguna Beach, wanted the society to secure a bank loan for the rest of the $130,000 project.
"The option that we had was to find financing ourselves," Everakes said, "which would have meant that our board of directors would have had to sign for a bank loan, or find someone or a company to put up the loan."
The new funding allows the society to focus on other exhibits, said De Spain, who praised Supervisor Todd Spitzer for urging his board colleagues to support the zoo.
"It's like a shot in the arm," De Spain said.
For his part, Spitzer, whose district includes the zoo, has become a major zoo supporter, including enrolling his family in the zoo's adopt-an-animal program.
De Spain said the new seal exhibit will be called Coastal Cove and will create an artificial rock bluff complete with coastal sage, fog, and ocean sounds to reflect California's coastline.
"We're trying to allow the visitor the experience of being on a small pier looking at the California coastline," De Spain said. "The back of the exhibit is a 16-foot artificial surface, resembling a coastal bluff. The top four feet are simulated roots with a water-drip system for irrigated coastal sage and other plants."
For the seals, a large hole has been dug and its sides covered with concrete. It will hold 30,000 gallons of water, he said.
In addition, the bottom of the bluff will have a small, sandy beach and an island in the middle of a rocky area, designed so seals can sun themselves, he said. A portion of the exhibit also will be engineered to include a tidal surge.
The public will walk onto a pier-like structure about five feet above water level. De Spain said galvanized steel pier railings recycled from the old Aliso Pier will be incorporated into the exhibit.
But De Spain isn't stopping there. The exhibit also will include a fog machine beneath the pier.
"We're trying to create an environment here since coastal fog is so much a part of our coastal environment," he said. "We'll also have a sound system with sounds of the coast."
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Building a New Home
Orange County Zoo officials hope to complete the Coastal Cove exhibit this year.
Source: Orange County Zoo, Creative Rock Concepts
Graphic reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times