The Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary began as a home for an orphaned bear cub in 1963. As it celebrates 50 years, the zoo today hosts a robust 85 animals, including monkeys, feral cats and a pair of tigers.
But the mission of the organization has remained unchanged. It is officially a sanctuary, unlike traditional zoos, so animals here are not bred or traded. The management philosophy has always been “deference to the animals,” said Folsom Parks and Recreation Director Robert Goss, noting that critters are never locked out of their exhibits for other than health reasons.
“Animals first, humans second,” Goss said.
Jackie Miars, 54, remembers fondly coming to the zoo as a young child on the weekends to see “Smokey the Bear.”
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Smokey, an injured cub and the zoo’s first resident, found himself at the center of controversy when the federal government objected to his name on the grounds that there was already a Smokey Bear for the U.S. Forest Service. Eventually, the Forest Service relented, and Folsom Smokey was left alone until he died in 1984.
“Smokey. That’s all I wanted to see,” Miars said at the zoo on Wednesday, recalling her childhood visits.
Miars, who now lives in Clayton, Wash., returned for the first time in 24 years and brought along granddaughter Haley.
Haley, 3 years old, appeared bewildered as Grandma escorted her in front of several current bear residents, in a cage little more than 5 feet away – close enough for the girl to get a good look.
After five decades, the 5.6-acre zoo is examining ways to improve both animal and visitor experiences. Goss said officials are working on a plan for a new barn for domestic animals. On Wednesday, crews were putting the finishing touches on a new reptile exhibit to open this weekend.
The zoo, administered by the city of Folsom, has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, Goss said. About $800,000 is generated through concession and ticket sales, he said, while the city pays the balance.
The small staff of seven ensures that animals are cared for 365 days a year, checking on the creatures at least twice a day. “Bright, alert and responsive” are the watchwords for each animal on daily checks, zoo supervisor Jocelyn Smeltzer said.
The zoo staffers say they pride themselves on creating an open atmosphere for guests to get close to sanctuary residents. Instead of a moat barricade or glass divider, humans and animals are separated by an open-air cage, 5 to 6 feet of space and a low fence.
“You feel very close to the animal,” Goss said.
Despite the Folsom Zoo’s small size compared with famed institutions such as the San Diego Zoo, it has a devoted following. More than 125,000 people visit the sanctuary annually, with 60 percent traveling from out of town, according to zoo surveys.
Zookeepers are planning a birthday bash Saturday that will include free food, games and face painting. Guests will be able to create birthday cards and buy food to feed animals. Keepers will strut out a collection of donkeys, rabbits and miniature horses for children to pet.
The zoo is in Folsom City Park, 403 Stafford St. It is open Tuesdays through Sundays and most holidays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $5 weekdays and $6 on weekends. For more information, call (916) 351-3527.