Decades of conservation work, community fundraising, and on-the-ground planning culminated at the Santa Barbara Zoo on Earth Day, April 22, when more than 100 dignitaries, employees, supporters, and everyday animal lovers converged for the opening of the new California Trails exhibit. Featuring native plants, Channel Island foxes, desert tortoise, bald eagles, rattlesnakes, and – the most endangered star of them all – the California condor, the exhibit enjoys prime placement in the zoo, with views of the shimmering Andree Clark Bird Refuge lagoon and rolling green Montecito foothills.
On Wednesday, after zoo CEO Rich Block introduced a laundry list of politicians and project workers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jesse Grantham, who works at the condor’s preferred Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge, addressed the large crowd. He recalled the crisis during the mid 1980s, when condor populations were dropping rapidly. Motioning to the massive birds behind him in the netted zone, he explained, “This would have been unheard of in the 1980s when this program started.”
Less than 30 years ago, he explained, there were just 22 birds in the wild. That number dropped to 15 by 1984, eight by 1985, and three in 1986, until the last bird was captured on Easter Sunday in 1987. “The credit has to go to the zoos who stepped up to the plate when captive breeding was the only way this bird was going to be saved,” said Grantham. Those captive breeding programs have led to the release of birds back into the wild. And some of those birds are once again breeding as nature intended. There are now 325 condors in the world, 86 of which fly in the California skies from Big Sur and the Pinnacles in the north down to Kern and Ventura counties. Grantham said that they are acting just like wild birds did, choosing the same flight paths, roost trees, and nesting caves. “We’re not going to lose the condor,” he said. “It’s not going to go extinct.”
But he also said that, if everyone walked away now, the bird’s population would probably trickle away. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said, explaining that due to toxic lead in the environment, the birds can have a hard time surviving; three are currently being treated for lead poisoning. But it’s not only that: Two more are being treated for gunshots wounds.
Luckily, the birds are easy to love, said Grantham, explaining that the bird has more charisma than any other species he’s handled. He called it “tar-baby appeal,” explaining, “Once you touch the bird, you never get away from it.”
But don’t take his word for it. There will be a public event to welcome the California condors at the Santa Barbara Zoo this Saturday, April 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. See sbzoo.org or call 962-5339 for details.