The Sequoia Park Zoo
● By Jordan Venema
Wild KingdomJune 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Greg Nyquist
When you think of the coastal redwood parks, you probably think of their very large, old growth trees. But on the northern edge of Eureka’s Sequoia Park, you’ll also find California’s oldest zoo. And a $5.75 ticket (for adults) gives entry not just to California’s most historic, but also perhaps its most unique zoo.
Sequoia Park Zoo celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2007, and zoo manager Gretchen Ziegler believes its long history is especially cool, “since we’re out in the boonies up here.”
But let this history be a fun, cautionary tale to anyone who enjoys feeding deer – the long run could lead to an accredited zoo. According to Ziegler, that’s just how Sequoia Park Zoo got started. “The mythology is that it began by feeding either deer or elk that were here, and a pen grew around them, and then, all of a sudden, oh, hey, it’s a zoo.”
Officially, Sequoia Park Zoo was “founded” a year after Eureka purchased 67 acres from logging companies to form Sequoia Park. The zoo grew as animals were obtained “opportunistically,” which is one way to describe its unique acquisition of what was the zoo’s most popular attraction: Bill the Chimp.
Bill was “pretty famous,” says Ziegler, “one of the oldest chimps that lived in captivity.” But his story is just as fascinating as his long-lived age. “He was wild-caught in Africa, performed in a circus in Europe and in front of the queen of England,” says Ziegler. And when happened to travel through Eureka in the 1950s, “local kids donated their pennies to purchase him from a traveling circus.”
Bill’s death in 2007 was a big deal in the community, says Ziegler, but it also coincided with a sea change within the zoo’s narrative. “The chimpanzee exhibit was not up to par, not up to standards,” says Ziegler, and in 2006 the zoo had adopted a master plan to identify animal species most appropriate for its size.
“We wanted to be really specific about telling stories about nature,” explains Ziegler. “Zoos in the past used to arrange animals in a haphazard manner – chimpanzees next to black bears next to gibbons next to prairie dogs, you know?”
Sequoia Park Zoo didn’t want a menagerie of animals. It wanted a cohesive presentation, purpose and preservation. So it focused on its strengths, as a small but intimate zoo, a zoo within the Sequoias.
Sequoia Park Zoo has its gibbons, spider monkeys, peccaries and tropical species, but its latest exhibit focuses on its backyard neighbors. By creating exhibits that protect animals native to the coastal redwoods, the facility has created a kind of zoo within a zoo. Sequoia Park Zoo is one of the only zoos where its natural habitat surrounds its perimeters, with actual Redwood trees looming over its fences.
In 2014, the zoo opened its Watershed Heroes exhibit, including a River Otter Habitat, Salmon Stream and Learning Lab. “It’s one of the best river otter exhibits I’ve ever seen at any zoo,” says Ziegler. “It’s got underwater viewing, a crawl-through acrylic tube so otters can swim around you when you’re in there.”
In April, they introduced a bald eagle and spotted owl. But Ziegler’s favorite addition to the zoo is its latest animals – coyote, bobcat, black bear and fisher. “The predators are my favorite,” she says with a laugh. “They’re compelling.” More than compelling, she adds, “They’re relevant because this is in their backyard, neighborhood.”
“This is a zoo like no other in the world,” says Ziegler. But the zoo doesn’t just want to include its native animals; it also wants to include the park itself. “The intent is to build a redwood canopy walk that goes out into the park, into the redwoods, and gets people elevated into the canopy levels,” explains Ziegler.
By constructing a sequence of suspended bridges, tree-to-tree, the zoo could offer a
view of the redwoods that few national or state parks can offer. And that perspective, from above, would introduce guests to a world that, according to Ziegler, “no one knows about.”
And just as these parks exist to preserve old growth redwoods, so the zoo exists to preserve its animals. “While (our guests) are having a great time, we slip in conservation messaging, and that’s really our main goal.” These animals, Ziegler adds, are “ambassadors to share their stories.” Ziegler wants the zoo to be a community resource. “We’re also the only zoo in a pretty wide area, so we try to make this a fun, peaceful place.”
Over the last decade, Sequoia Park Zoo has come a long way from a few makeshift pens around some hungry deer. Now Ziegler is hardly surprised when people tell her it’s
the most beautiful zoo they’ve ever seen. And small as it might be, Sequoia Park Zoo isn’t done growing yet, because much like the redwoods that surround it, sky’s the limit.
Sequoiaparkzoo.net • (707) 441-4263
Summer Hours (memorial day – labor day)
7 days a week, 10am-5pm
Ticket prices: Adult: $5.75;
Children (3-12): $3.75; Under 3: Free