Santa Barbara Zoo begins work on walkabout exhibit
The Santa Barbara Zoo has started construction on its Australian Walkabout exhibit.
The new space is expected to open next summer. When that happens, zoo guests will walk on a path in the same space as native Australian species such as emus, kangaroos, wallabies and birds unique to the continent.
The Australian Walkabout will be in the space formerly occupied by the zoo’s Asian elephants Sujatha and Little Mac. The two elephants lived together in the enclosure until they respectively died in 2018 and 2019.
Following their passing, the zoo knew it wasn’t going to have any more elephants. Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care and health, explained that this is because of new requirements for zoos holding elephants, namely that they must have a herd of elephants, between three and eight, and have at least one buck.
“The space we had for our two old girls wouldn’t be enough for a herd of elephants,” Dr. Barnes said.
The zoo eventually decided on using the vacant space for an exhibit on Australian animals, in part because exhibits featuring macropods, a family of marsupials that includes kangaroos and wallabies, have historically been successful examples of exhibits where guests can share the same space as animals.
Dr. Barnes said getting people up close and personal with animals is a great way for guests to develop an empathetic connection with them.
“One of the great ways to get people to care about animals is to connect people with animals,” she said.
On top of that, the new exhibit is meant to promote wildlife conservation in Australia, which was brought to the world’s attention with the recent megafires that ravaged habitats and killed or harmed billions of animals.
“While the full extent of the long-term impact on the country’s biodiversity as a result of these devastating brushfires is unknown, there is no doubt that many native species are at increased risk of extinction or becoming threatened due to habitat loss,” Dr. Barnes said in a zoo news release. “This new exhibit will do more than connect people with unique wildlife. It also represents an ongoing connection between our community and dedicated conservation efforts in Australia.”
Because Australia is facing one of the fastest rates of mammal extinctions worldwide due to fires, climate change and drought, problems that are also felt in California, Dr. Barnes believes the Australian Walkabout exhibit’s conservation theme is also of local importance.
“That is happening all around the world, so it’s a great platform for conservation messaging,” she said.
Animals featured in the exhibit will include emus, the second tallest living bird in the world, as well as Bennett’s wallabies and western grey kangaroos. The exhibit will also have an adjoining aviary showcasing three native Australian bird species, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, tawny frogmouth and laughing kookaburra.