It’s a slice of the wild in the middle of the city.

And it’s free for Santa Ana residents on the third Sunday of every month this year. 

It’s called “Resident Free Day” at the Santa Ana Zoo, in which those who show proof of residency at the gate, like a driver’s license or utility bill, can walk through without a cent out of their wallet. 

The next opportunity is Feb. 19. 

Click here for all the scheduled dates.

Free days at the zoo have been happening since as early as 2003, but after the pandemic put the city’s parks and open space shortage into new focus, zoo officials are aligning their special events with the monthly no-cost window to benefit its working-class residents in new ways. 

The change was made last year, said Zoo Manager Ethan Fisher in a Thursday phone interview.

“And this year, for example, we started offering our story time events in English and Spanish – also on the third Sunday of every month,” Fisher said. “We also do different community events around the city, where we go to different city parks for pop-up programs and share info about the free Sundays.”

The zoo’s a place to see things from worlds away.

For instance: A multi-species exhibit of Anteaters, Guanacos and Rheas exposes visitors to the Pampas Grasslands of South America, one of the most endangered habitats in the world. 

By the zoo’s description, it blurs the lines between visitors and exhibit space – “the guest feels as though they are part of the space, rather than on the outside looking in.”

But first the zoo had to mirror its own community – reshaping itself to residents’ needs over the years.

At first, in the early aughts, it was free Tuesdays. 

“Well, that didn’t work very well because most people work on Tuesday,” Fisher said, noting the switch to Sundays came in 2011, something that was “much more successful in providing access to residents.”

Last year the zoo saw just shy of 10,000 residents come in for free Sundays, Fisher said. 

“In the pandemic, a lot of folks were quarantined in their homes. What we learned from the pandemic is that folks really need green space and really need to be out in the community,” said Roberto Herrera, a city parks commissioner, in a phone interview.

Between 3-4% of city land in total is used for parks and recreation space, according to the Trust for Public Lands.

Currently there are 1.1 acres of parkland in Santa Ana for every 1,000 residents, which is “significantly less” than the 3 acres for every 1,000 recommended in the city’s revised General Plan

That document outlines the city’s planning goals through 2045. 

The city’s new Parks Master Plan puts it this way:

“Santa Ana’s parkland is also far less than typically provided by cities of a comparable size.”

Herrera said it’s a reminder of the need to fund parks and recreation in town, something which gets a marginal slice of the city budget compared to departments like police, which get the lion’s share of city funding. 

Last year, however, was a significant year for parks programming, with events like Summer movies in city parks – something Herrera lauded as “amazing” and worth “replicating” this year.

“As a department, we still need to fund parks and rec. We learned from the pandemic that folks need these resources and want to be out in the community in a safe way,” he said.

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