50 is magic monkey number at Santa Ana Zoo


Santa Ana has been running low on monkeys.

For decades, the family that gave the city the land for its small but popular zoo has kept tabs on the primate population. The deal was 50 monkeys. Anything less and the city would lose the land.

But lately, the Santa Ana Zoo has fallen below the monkey line, and a descendant of city pioneer J.E. Prentice has threatened to take back the 12 acres if the population isn’t stabilized.

Zoo officials say it’s difficult to maintain the requisite number of monkeys. Animals die unexpectedly and waiting periods for endangered species breeding programs can last years. Even housing them all is a challenge.


“You can’t just go to Monkeys-R-Us or EBay to get monkeys,” said Kent Yamaguchi, interim director at the city zoo. “Populations of living things change, so certain things happen that you may not foresee because they’re living, breathing things.”

Prentice, nicknamed the “Monkey Man” because of his fondness for primates, donated a 12-acre piece of property to the city in 1949 to establish a park and zoo. He hammered out the monkey clause with the city’s mayor before signing off on the deal.

The zoo opened in 1953 in newly minted Prentice Park, not far from the Civic Center. The first roll call showed 50 monkeys, four species in all.

A prominent lawyer and land baron, Prentice kept monkeys and a gibbon in his 16-room mansion nearby, giving them such unfettered reign that he had trouble holding on to housekeepers. The home site is now an Elks Lodge.

“He was an old man, he had no children,” said Joseph Powell II, Prentice’s great-nephew. “He just wanted the children to enjoy the animals of the world, so we just want to make sure the city is living up to its end of the bargain.”

The population at what visitors know affectionately as the “monkey zoo” has dipped below 50 several times in recent months, officials concede.

Powell, 64, of Santa Ana, informed city officials last summer that he had dispatched “independent individuals” to run a head count of the zoo’s primates, finding fewer than 50 monkeys at least five times. Powell asked for proof that the city was living up to the accord.

If not, the letter from his attorney read, “We plan to proceed with our rights under the grant deed to have the property revert back to Mr. Prentice’s heirs.”

In November the zoo lost its oldest monkey Geni, a 35-year-old silver langur. Then two weeks ago, Monty, its 17-year-old male Capuchin monkey, died, bringing the total down to 48.

But a few weeks later, zoo workers learned that one of their golden lion tamarins was pregnant, with twins, no less.

“While we were dipping down below that number, Yamaguchi said, “we knew there were two in the oven.”

And sure enough, the mother gave birth to two thumb-sized babies as expected Tuesday, bringing the population back to 50.

As of this week, exactly 50 monkeys reside at the zoo, among them howler monkeys, spider monkeys, an emperor tamarin sporting a long, white handlebar mustache, and a Pygmy marmoset, one of the world’s smallest monkeys, weighing in at only a quarter of a pound.

City officials said they take the terms of the agreement seriously and boasted of more than 60 primates, most of which are monkeys.

For the moment, Powell said, he’s satisfied but intends to keep his eye on the zoo’s “Monkey Row.”

And, his attorney has cautioned, the family will not accept any substitutes; “any form of lemurs or apes are not monkeys under any zoological definition.”

Even so, the monkeys probably won’t have to adjust to a new landlord; Powell said he’d prefer not to have to take the land back.

To make sure they don’t get in trouble again, city officials have announced a new policy: aim for 55 monkeys.

“That,” Powell said, “would be wonderful.”