The Santa Barbara Zoo is what one might call a ’boutique’ zoo. It is not one of the large, institutional zoos like San Diego’s with tens of thousands of animals and jam packed with visitors. Instead, Santa Barbara has a small, yet very unique and beautiful zoo.
Located on the hills above the Pacific, the zoo has some of the most incredible grounds I’ve ever seen AND an amazing ocean view. What animal wouldn’t appreciate that? Okay, most of the animals probably couldn’t care less about an ocean view, but what visitor wouldn’t appreciate that?
The Santa Barbara Zoo is unique in that the grounds – and not the animals – are the star attraction. If you were to remove all of the animals from the zoo, it would still be a spectacular destination worth visiting. The primary walking paths meander through well manicured palms, thick bamboo groves, lush green lawns, and native cactus and succulent gardens.
Serious thought went into the landscape design of the park and no details were overlooked. After visiting both the Santa Barbara botanic gardens and the zoo, there was no doubt in my mind that the zoo had the better grounds of the two. I’d be perfectly content paying to stroll the grounds of this zoo without seeing a single animal.
Large lawns, gardens, picnic areas, an amphitheater, and a playground make up a significant portion of zoo property; features that usually aren’t given much thought or space at most zoos.
But it’s not just the human-oriented spaces that are well appointed; the animal enclosures are just as beautifully designed. To illustrate this point, I took a picture of the giraffe enclosure, sans giraffes.
While I could visit the zoo without seeing a single animal and still be content with just the grounds, it is worth noting that there is plenty of animal life residing in this zoo as well.
The zoo’s most famous resident is Lucky the Humboldt penguin. Shortly after hatching, Lucky began exhibiting abnormal development in his right foot and began developing sores which became infected from walking improperly. Concerned about the health of their penguin, the staff at the Santa Barbara Zoo contacted Teva, a local footwear company to see if they could help in any way.
Seizing on the chance to help out their friends at the zoo (and most certainly recognizing the inevitable public relations bonanza that was about to come their way), Teva dedicated a design team to work on creating a new shoe specifically for Lucky. Teva came back with a unique shoe designed to fit Lucky’s foot that allowed him to walk and swim like the other penguins while protecting him from the wounds he was suffering from.
Teva has agreed to provide Lucky with his special shoes free of charge for the rest of his life.
While the crowds gathered to see Lucky, I enjoyed watching the white-handed gibbons in their island enclosure. Depending on the time of day, these primates can be quite noisy but when I visited they were sitting quietly on the edge of this dock staring right back at me as I snapped some photos of them.
Another immensely popular exhibit were the otters. At the time I visited (late afternoon) they were incredibly active, running, jumping, swimming, diving, playing, and squeaking (loudly) at one another. I didn’t realize just how vocal otters could be until I saw these guys.
The zoo is quintessentially Santa Barbara – it is clean, tidy, and well designed, yet sophisticated and alluring. And are there any other zoos where you can bring a bottle of wine in to enjoy on a green hill overlooking the ocean?
While the zoo may be quaint and small, it still offers a world class experience, and for this reason it has become a major draw for those visiting the Santa Barbara area.
500 Ninos Drive
Santa Barbara, California, 93103
Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Cost: Adults – $14, Children/Seniors – $10
TRR Tips – The zoo can be seen in under an hour if you’re just looking to stroll the grounds and spend some time looking for a few of your favorite animals. If you’re really into the animals, two and a half hours is plenty of time to allocate for a visit.