In the left-hand pocket of Orange County's 5 and 55 freeways, a small, urban park conceals beneath rain-forest flora the Santa Ana Zoo, a blighted gem of cages and artificial rock, as dusty and frivolous as it is enticing to anyone with 4 bucks and some free time after 2 o'clock.
When founded 60 years ago, the zoo's main mission was to house at least 50 monkeys at all times. The many primate cages remain a highlight despite their unkempt manner, and the gardens, a meandering train and a new two-acre grassland, "Tierra de las Pampas," reveal the stops and starts of improvement. It is a city-owned park, after all, marked by the neglect and enthusiasm unique to government-run public projects.
While the zoo does not host the spectacle--or big animals--of nearby mega-zoos like those in San Diego and Los Angeles, it's still worth a visit, particularly to support its conservation efforts, including the breeding of endangered golden lion tamarins. These engaging creatures squeak to their audience as if attempting conversation, climb as if called to perform, and then--distracted by a questionable morsel or bored with their company--turn away with charming indifference.
Because of the zoo's proximity to major transportation corridors, the constant rush of traffic is unavoidable. The animals don't seem to mind the incessant white noise, except for the camels (wayward guests for the summer). They alone appeared nervous.