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Montebello petting zoo reopens — minus the petting

Rolando Wolovich in a Stetson hat and a mask leans on a fence next to two of his ponies
Owner Rolando Wolovich had to keep the Montebello Barnyard Zoo closed for much of 2020 due to COVID-19 measures. A GoFundMe raised over $30,000 to keep the zoo afloat until it could reopen.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

On a normal day at the Montebello Barnyard Zoo, the Salas children would be petting Burro the donkey and Lula the cow.

Instead, they settled for photos with the animals.

After months of pandemic-mandated shutdown, the zoo opened again in early February.

The Salases waited in socially distanced lines with other masked children, then hopped aboard ponies, both real ones and the perpetually frozen ones on a 1940s carousel. But burrowing into the animals’ fur and getting up close and personal was off-limits.

Patricia Salas, inhaling the barnyard scents through her mask, remembers visiting the zoo herself decades ago, as children in this predominantly Latino part of the San Gabriel Valley have for generations.

“When you have a big family and you don’t have a lot of money, this zoo is close and affordable,” said Salas, 52, of Covina, who came on a recent Saturday with nine family members — grandchildren, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews.

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Mateo Jimenez rides a pony
Mateo Jimenez celebrates his fourth birthday with a pony ride led by handler Adam Orozco at the Montebello Barnyard Zoo.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Admission is $6, with some attractions costing an extra fee, versus $17 for a child’s ticket at the Los Angeles Zoo. There are no tigers, lions, elephants or bears — just humble barnyard animals, along with turtles and a lone emu, many rescued from dire circumstances by the zoo’s owner, Rolando Wolovich.

As the pandemic forced the petting zoo to close for months at a time starting last March, Wolovich and his daughter, Melanie, arrived at 7 a.m. every day to fork out alfalfa and hay, as well as muck out the stalls and chicken coops.

Like countless other small businesses, they struggled without income from visitors. But they faced an added pressure — keeping their animals alive.

By December, they were desperate.

Melanie Wolovich, 45, started a GoFundMe, raising $31,000 — just enough to tide them over to a Feb. 5 reopening, after the coronavirus surge in Southern California eased and restrictions on zoos lifted.

A maximum of 50 people are allowed at a time, and hand sanitizer stations are scattered throughout. During the pandemic, there is no petting of the animals at this petting zoo.

“My dad was against it, but we got to the point where we asked ourselves, ‘Where would these animals go if we closed?’” she said of the GoFundMe appeal.

For Rolando, 65, who is rarely seen without his trademark straw cowboy hat, the pandemic is a terrifying flashback to his final days in his native Argentina.

He was a member of the national equestrian team when inflation skyrocketed after the 1982 Falklands War.

He moved to the U.S., working as a private horse trainer and running a stable in Montebello.

The area was more rural then, and he took in animals — pigs abandoned in dilapidated barns, homeless rabbits, chickens given up by people moving out of the area.

Wolovich eventually became the owner of the zoo, which has been open since 1968. He rents the land from the city, which has forgiven his payments for the early months of the pandemic.

“You have to really love animals, man, to put up with the smell, the work” and the messes, Wolovich said.

An emu struts at the Montebello Barnyard Zoo, as Melanie Wolovich, who runs the zoo, looks on
An emu wanders around its enclosure at the Montebello Barnyard Zoo, watched by Melanie Wolovich, whose father owns the zoo.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

This corner of Grant Rea Park, where mariachis exercise their horses between gigs, is a vestige of the San Gabriel Valley’s agrarian past.

The zoo is home to about 50 creatures, including horses, llamas, bunnies, ducks, sheep, goats, chickens, roosters, turtles, two giant African sulcata tortoises, a cow and an emu.

There are also attractions like pony rides, the 1940s carousel and a John Deere tractor ride.

Long Beach resident Chuck Garcia, 58, who gave a few hundred dollars to the GoFundMe, remembers visiting the zoo in eighth grade, when it was run by Montebello’s 4-H club.

“It’s been a place that’s always been fun but has always been for the community, because not everyone could afford the L.A. Zoo,” Garcia said. “It had to be preserved for the next generation.”

Melanie Wolovich, who began working for the family business in 2007 after a difficult divorce, estimates that the zoo has lost about $150,000 on parties and field trips canceled because of the pandemic.

“We’re not out of the woods yet financially,” she said, “but it’s wonderful knowing people care about us, about the animals and the future of the zoo.”


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