Santa Ana Zoo falls below 50-monkey quota

In the Santa Ana Zoo’s Monkey Row, a capuchin named Mateo was shaking his cage for attention.

Nearby, spider monkeys glided through a canopy of ropes, and a black-and-white colobus lazily munched on a lettuce leaf.

Monkeys are the main attraction of this small zoo, featured on its logo and giving the Ferris wheel its name.

But there are only 28 of them — well below the 50 needed by the ape-loving citrus grower, who donated the 12 acres south of the 5 Freeway that the zoo has occupied since 1952.

Over the years, heirs of Joseph Prentice, nicknamed “Monkey Man,” have attempted to enforce the 50-monkey rule, even threatening to take back the land.

Zoo officials say they’re trying their best, but there are only a limited number of monkeys available for purchase from other zoos.

Zoo keeper Paige Siegel checks on Ashley, a ring-tailed lemur, at the Santa Ana Zoo.

Zookeeper Paige Siegel checks on Ashley, a ring-tailed lemur, at the Santa Ana Zoo. Lemurs are not monkeys.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, a new heir – the son of Prentice’s nephew – has taken a softer tack, saying he believes zoo officials are honoring his great-uncle’s wishes.

“So far they’ve done very well,” heir Jac Crawford Jr. said of zoo officials. “I certainly wouldn’t want to try to guess them.”

Crawford, 76, said his late father, a lawyer, helped Prentice with the legal paperwork to start a zoo that displays monkeys. He believes Prentice and his father came up with the 50-monkey quota after exploring the exhibits at the San Diego Zoo.

Prentice, a lawyer and land baron, lived in a 16-room mansion near what is now the zoo with monkeys and a gibbon whose mischief led several housekeepers to quit, according to a 2009 Times article.

After negotiating the terms of the land donation with the city, Prentice died childless.

In 2008, a grand-nephew, Joseph Powell II, told the city that he had performed head counts of the monkeys and found fewer than 50 in several cases, returning to Mr. Prentice’s heirs,” his attorney wrote to the city.

That year, multiple deaths brought the monkey colony back to 48 before a golden lion tamarin gave birth to twins and reached the magic number of 50.

Visitors walk along a path surrounded by vegetation with fences on either side

Visitors walk the Monkey Row at the Santa Ana Zoo.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

After Powell died in 2015, Erin Hernandez took over ape enforcement.

“I was always told as a kid that my generation had to make sure the city lived up to the 50-monkey count,” said Hernandez, 57, of Lake Forest, who is a great-granddaughter of one of Prentice’s sisters.

Earlier this year, she only counted 20 monkeys. In April, she wrote a letter reminding city officials of the agreement with Prentice.

Much has changed since 1952 when the first batch of monkeys arrived in Santa Ana from the wild. Federal laws and international treaties now protect endangered species, which include many of the zoo’s monkeys, from being further endangered by an unregulated wildlife trade.

Officials explained to Hernandez that the zoo’s only source of monkeys are accredited zoos, which have a limited number of animals available for loan or donation. Santa Ana’s monkey population has declined due to some deaths as well as a slowdown in animal transfers between zoos during the pandemic, they said.

Zoo officials recently uncovered an amended deed from 1954 that named Crawford’s father the descendant responsible for enforcing the land donation, making Crawford and not Hernandez the heir today.

Hernandez said she wants the zoo to adhere to the 50-monkey rule. But Crawford has the legal authority with his laissez-faire approach.

A spider monkey moves about in its habitat at the Santa Ana Zoo.

A spider monkey moves about in its habitat at the Santa Ana Zoo.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Zoo Director Ethan Fisher recalls visiting the Monkey Zoo, whose full name is Santa Ana Zoo in Prentice Park, as a child.

Fisher, 39, started out as a volunteer at the zoo in 1999 before becoming its director five years ago. More important than the accurate count of monkeys is the zoo’s hometown feel, he said.

“The ultimate goal was a zoo for the community,” Fisher said. “Speaking to other extended family members, what’s here today is more than anyone ever dreamed of.”

There are no elephants, tigers or gorillas here. The monkeys live alongside ocelots, camels, giant anteaters and armadillos, as well as common farm animals like goats and pigs.

The expansion of the Santa Ana Zoo is underway.

The expansion of the Santa Ana Zoo is underway.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Near the entrance, the 50 Monkeys observation wheel pays homage to Prentice’s vision, with more than a dozen gondolas dedicated to endangered monkey species.

Admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children.

The zoo costs $3.7 million The annual budget is dwarfed by the Los Angeles Zoo’s $22 million and the San Diego Zoo’s $283 million.

Many of the monkeys are housed in cages that look little different from those used 70 years ago when the zoo opened.

That will soon change as construction crews work on a $6.6 million expansion that will include a 30-foot tall monkey habitat with a canopy path from which primates can swing and get closer to visitors. Another $16 million will convert Monkey Row into Primate Forest.

Zoo curator Jenny Walker feeds a black-and-white colobus at the Santa Ana Zoo.

Zoo curator Jenny Walker feeds a black-and-white colobus at the Santa Ana Zoo.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The first expanded monkey enclosure is slated to open in the summer of 2023 as part of a multi-year, $70 million renovation — the largest capital project in the zoo’s history — funded by increased revenue, donations and government support.

In 2017 the Assn. of zoos and aquariums refused to accredit the Santa Ana Zoo because of its outdated monkey habitats. With the renovations, zoo officials hope to qualify for accreditation, which would open up the opportunity to acquire more monkeys.

“Nobody says there will never be 50 monkeys in the zoo,” Fisher said. “It is conceivable that after all this construction work and the renovation of the zoo, we will end up with more than that.” Santa Ana Zoo falls below 50-monkey quota

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