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OC Zoo expands its paw print with new big cat exhibit

Santiago, a male mountain lion stretches out on his habitat fence at the OC Zoo Large Mammal Exhibition on Monday.
Santiago, a male mountain lion, stretches out on his habitat fence during the opening day celebration and ribbon-cutting for the OC Zoo large mammal exhibit on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The OC Zoo inside Orange’s Irvine Regional Park is expanding its paw print with a new large mammal exhibit featuring big cats.

The project increases the zoo’s size by approximately 2 acres and includes natural-looking rock walls, climbing platforms, a waterfall element and an overhead bridge connecting the different zones. An adult mountain lion named Santiago, three orphaned mountain lion cubs and an adult jaguar named Ziggy will make their homes there.

Santiago  greets OC park ranger Shannon Seeley through the fence of his habitat.
Santiago greets OC park ranger Shannon Seeley through the fence of his habitat during the opening day celebration and ribbon cutting for the OC Zoo Large Mammal Exhibition on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“This is an opportunity to get as close to a mountain lion as you might want to get,” Orange County Supervisor Donald P. Wagner said during a media preview on Monday.

The exhibit is part of the zoo’s General Development Plan, approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2013.

“That plan outlined ways that the zoo could grow and improve while staying an accessible and an affordable attraction for families,” said Wagner.

The design-build project cost about $9 million, with $1.9 million in grant funding from the California Department of Parks and Recreation awarded to OC Parks offsetting project costs. The first phase of the plan, a new entry plaza and restroom building, debuted in 2019.

The exhibit strives to resemble the big cats’ natural habitat while also increasing potential animal viewing for zoogoers with the overhead bridges.

A jaguar walking bridge is part of the new OC Zoo Large Mammal Exhibition.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Our purpose here is to educate the public on animals of the Southwest,” said zoo manager Donald Zeigler, “and gain a better understanding of the animals that we have right in our own communities.”

The OC Zoo is dedicated to animals native to the southwestern United States, which means visitors will mostly encounter animals found locally, like mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and birds of prey, though some broader region animals are included, such as black bears and Ziggy the jaguar.

Zeigler said he hopes visitors not only learn about these native creatures but come to respect them as well.

“There are so many animals here in our communities that we live alongside and we impact,” Zeigler said.

Minion, a screech owl, at the OC Zoo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Irvine Regional Park, where the zoo is located, opened in 1897, while the zoo itself began in 1905 with an exhibit of red foxes. More animals were added in 1920, and the current version of the zoo officially opened in 1985.

Most of the animals found at the OC Zoo are injured, rescued or confiscated and cannot be released to the wild. Santiago, who greeted media and fed on chicken in the new habitat on Monday, is a prime example.

Shannon Seeley interacts with Santiago through the fence of his habitat at the OC Zoo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The adult male mountain lion was found as an orphan in September 2011 in Oregon before he was transferred to the Feline Conservation Center in Rosamond, Calif. He came to the zoo in December 2011 at about six months old. Other large habitat residents include Ray, a 7-month-old lion cub who was found by California Department of Fish & Wildlife wardens in November 2021 after he was hit by a car in Monterey. Injuries to his back legs and left elbow prevented him from walking, but after being treated by an OC Zoo veterinarian, he is walking again.

The habitat also houses two female mountain lion cubs who were discovered in an office complex in Thousand Oaks.

“They were only about 6 weeks old at that time and in very poor health,” said Zeigler. “Fish & Wildlife had to make the decision because normally any cat in the wild would need a couple of years with Mom to be able to survive in the wild.”

They were brought to the OC Zoo and have been growing and developing well. A naming contest for the cubs will be held on the exhibit’s opening weekend, Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, with the zoo staff taking name suggestions for the sibling cubs. Animal keepers will narrow the suggestions and the public can vote on their favorites in the weeks to follow.

Besides the cats, some of the other rescued animals greeted media at the special preview.

At the ribbon-cutting preview Monday, a leashed black and white tegu lizard named Dwight roamed the new walkway with a zoo volunteer.

“The fire department put out a fire and they went inside and found a bunch of animals that weren’t being well taken care of,” the volunteer explained. “He was confiscated and brought to us, where he is actually doing quite well.”

Nearby, Bernadette, a porcupine who was born at the zoo and is one of the park’s ambassador animals, munched on yams while greeting visitors.

Bernadette, a porcupine, eats a yam at the OC Zoo.
Bernadette, a porcupine, eats a yam at the OC Zoo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Zoo admission is $2 for persons 3 years and over, while children 2 and under are free. Visit ocparks.com/oc-zoo for additional information.

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