On March 21, 2020, a star was born. Monty the Humboldt penguin was out for a stroll with his keeper Ellie Cullip across the grounds of the Santa Barbara Zoo, which had recently closed to visitors, when he met Bangori the lowland gorilla.
Monty waddled toward the glass wall of the big ape’s enclosure. Bangori stopped and stared. Monty gazed back, shuffling his feet. For 14 relatively quiet seconds, other than the gentle chirping of birds in the background, the two calmly regarded one another.
As the world swirled and buckled under a growing pandemic, it was a moment of peace. It felt a little Bambi-like, as if neighborhood creatures were sharing a quick hello. The wordless exchange was caught on Instagram, and 75,000 people watched. Monty was on his way.
Since then, Monty has embarked on more than a dozen chaperoned field trips around the zoo, over the months meeting HoneyBun the rabbit, Michael the giraffe, and others. All of the encounters have now been preserved in rhymes and watercolor in a new children’s book by the zoo’s marketing coordinator, Dori Edwards, and family friend and artist Ryan Carr. All of the proceeds will go directly to the zoo, which makes 97 percent of its revenue through ticket sales and took a major financial hit during the pandemic.
Edwards didn’t foresee how popular the Instagram series would become. “We kept getting comment after comment from people saying it was the best part of their day,” she said. “It was just so beautiful to see the impact it had on people’s lives.” So Edwards, who worked with kids for five years after college and always liked to write, put pen to paper and published Monty’s Marvelous Adventures in January. It’s now available at the zoo’s online retail shop. Montecito Bank & Trust sponsored the project.
Edwards said she’d love to do another book one day, maybe with a new central character. The zoo, which is now open on a reservation basis, has plenty of amazing animals to choose from, she said. “There are more than a few contenders.”
In the meantime, Edwards thanked the Santa Barbarans who were there for the zoo over the past year. “We have a really amazing community that believes in what we do,” she said. “We’re super grateful to have their support.”