Visitors in recent weeks have been trying to get a glimpse of the Orange County Zoo’s newest addition to its less than a year-old large mammal exhibit: A 12-month-old jaguar named Mickey, who joins four other large cats.

Last month, local residents were excited to see the debut of the  tawny 50-pound big cat roam its enclosure alongside his 3-year-old, 145-pound brother Ziggy, who joined the zoo last May during the exhibit’s opening. 

However, Mickey remained hidden from some visitors’ views for the most part in recent weeks. Big cats are instinctually elusive animals in the wild, according to Don Zeigler, the zoo manager.  

Gifted from Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo in mid-December, the young jaguar was acclimated to his new environment through visual barriers that were gradually taken down in sections, explained Zeigler. 

The manager of the Wildlife World Zoo, a friend of Zeigler’s, offered Mickey as a gift to help the OC Zoo continue to exhibit and educate visitors about animals native to the Southwest. 

As soon as a suitable habitat was ready, Zeigler drove to Arizona to pick up the young jaguar, where zoo staff helped to transport the cat.

Visitors walk through the large cat enclosures at the OC Zoo located inside of Irvine Park on March 13, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Danielle Mastromatteo, 33, a Villa Park resident, visited the zoo recently with her family to see the new addition. 

“We’ve been coming here forever,” she said. “We’re excited to see it [and] we’re looking for it. [My daughter’s] like: Everyone’s here to see the jaguar.”

Jennifer Madden, 44, and her 5-year-old daughter, Elliana, frequent the zoo often and found the new expansion to be nice, despite not seeing the elusive large cat on a recent visit. She said the jaguars likely are out less when it is noisy.

“They’re still cats, you know,” Madden said. “You don’t see them just chilling in the park, like a squirrel.” 

Elliana interrupted her mother, yelling out excitedly: “Look behind you,” while pointing to a mountain lion lying down on a bridge in the enclosure.

Ziggy’s jaguar spots come to life as the sun hits his black coat on March 13, 2023. Credit: MAXIMO SANTANA, Voice of OC

The enclosure is home to five large cats: three mountain lions, and the two jaguars, in a natural-looking environment with bridges, “artificial rock walls, climbing platforms, and a waterfall,” according to a zoo press release. The habitat can also be adjusted by staff to allow the cats to explore different areas of the enclosure and to choose whether to go indoors or remain outdoors.

A mountain lion stops and observes zoo visitors on March 23, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The OC Zoo did not always have the attendance it garners today.

Tina Richards, a former longtime volunteer at the zoo who today publishes the Orange community newspaper, the Foothill Sentry, recalls the OC Zoo fell into a dismal state years back, due to what she said was poor management, unprofessional staffing, and neglect for the facility.

As an example, “The old lion exhibit had a cactus garden in front of it. It was completely overgrown, to the point where you had to stand on your toes, over the weeds, to see the cats. I remember I went in there once and tried to clean that up, and got cactus all over me,” Richards said. “[The zoo] was just unkempt. [Visitor] attendance was dismal. There would be days when no one was there.” 

Richards said the zoo’s struggling state back then prompted her to speak to management to make fixes to the facility. After bringing it to the management’s attention, other zookeepers submitted a formal complaint, and Zeigler was brought in, according to Richards.

“Don actually cared about the zoo, and cared about the animals. Within three years or so, it was a totally new place. Attendance started booming; people started coming,” said Richards. 

“It was funny because I was in his office, and he brought out these plans. He [said] he’s gonna build a large mammal exhibit, and it’s gonna go right there, and look at this. And I was sitting there going, ‘yeah, right Don, you hold on to that thought.’ Anyways, they built it. I almost cried, because it’s so beautiful, and that was Don’s vision, and he talked about it for years,” she said.

California’s first zoo opened in 1889 in San Francisco, according to a report from the Orange County Grand Jury, followed by numerous other zoos in existence today. 

In Orange County, the OC Zoo and Santa Ana Zoo are the only two independently accredited zoos, according to the report. 

Elizabeth Hueg, the founder of non-profit organization OC Shelter Partners, said in an email asking for her view on zoos that she and her family love the San Diego Zoo Safari Park because the animals have large enclosures and can hide from the public eye when they choose. 

“We love the work [the zoo does] to save endangered animals,” Hueg said. “As a side note, I took my daughter to the other zoo in San Diego when she was seven and she has never wanted to return. The cages made her sad.”

Jamie Sanders, the founder of a group of animal rights activists called the Orange County Animal Liberation, said that she believes zoos are artificial environments for human entertainment.

“Zoos are taking an animal out of its natural habitat and forcing it to be confined in a cage [which] causes physical harm to them,” said Sanders. “I don’t support the exploitation of animals for human gain.”

Visitors observe a mountain lion pace back and forth as a crowd gathers around on March 13, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

However, most animals taken in at the OC Zoo typically cannot make it on their own in the wild, according to Marcy Crede-Booth, the curator of education at the OC Zoo. 

Ray, the male mountain lion in the large mammal exhibit, was hit by a car in November 2021 and suffered some leg damage before being taken in by the zoo and treated by a veterinarian.

Crede-Booth also explained that the large cats’ habitat exceeds any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements.

“Nowadays, most modern zoos are concerned with being able to give animals mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, so we think that through a lot,” she said. “We do something called behavioral enrichment: We hide food around so they have to search for it, like they would forage in the wild; we give them toys to play with. We’re really concerned with their welfare, emotionally and physically.” 

The cats are fed a specific diet for zoo animals which includes ligaments, muscles, and bits of bone, said Crede-Booth. 

OC Zookeeper feeds Mickey pieces of meat during the enrichment portion of the jaguars day on March 13, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Creede-Booth said the exhibit is an opportunity to better educate the public on animals native to the southwestern part of the U.S. 

“A lot of kids now don’t get outside because they’re on technology, so nature can be a little foreign to them,” she said. “We get kids here that have never seen a raccoon before.”

Jaguars are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “which is why it is important to educate kids that these guys could be gone if we don’t really make the effort to conserve their species,” Creede-Booth added.

Some Orange County residents were unaware of Mickey’s arrival to the zoo. 

Julio Alcala, 43, a Buena Park resident, who was checking out the large cat enclosure with his two daughters recently, did not visit the zoo to see the new addition but was thrilled to find out that Mickey was there.

“We love babies and we’re happy that the families keep growing,” Alcala said. “This place is always evolving.”

Mickey the jaguar licks a frozen treat made out coconut milk on March 13, 2023. Credit: MAXIMO SANTANA, Voice of OC

The Orange County Zoo is inside the Irvine Regional Park in Orange and is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free for ages 2 years and under, and $2 per person for ages 3 years and over. 

The Santa Ana Zoo is at Prentice Park in Santa Ana and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission for ages 13+ is $12, while seniors aged 60+ and children under 13 are $9.

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