‘The nostalgia is really strong.’ Sacramento Zoo’s possible move stuns neighbors and visitors

For generations of children in Land Park, the Sacramento Zoo has been a beloved, exotic neighbor.

It is a main attraction for young families shopping for homes in the city. Students at Holy Spirit School are so close that they can hear the chirps of resident birds and the roars of big cats when they are dropped off each morning. Longtime residents who grew up with the zoo took their own children to see its animals, and now are buying memberships for grandchildren.

For them and many others, news that the zoo may be leaving its home of 91 years is triggering emotions and nostalgia.

“To me, the zoo is a little Shangri-La,” said Linda Overstreet, a Sacramento native and Land Park resident who attended Holy Spirit and sent her three daughters to the school. The zoo was a touchstone of all of their childhoods, she said. Her kids took part in service projects at the facility on occasion, she said, and got to stay on the grounds overnight.

“For things like that to go away, it would be a big loss,” Overstreet said.

The zoo announced this week that it wants to move to a much larger location, citing a lack of parking and concerns about its ability to house and breed certain species under increasingly strict standards. It has no firm plans yet for location or funding, said zoo director Jason Jacobs.

The agency that inspects zoos and aquariums around the country and oversees conservation efforts has told Jacobs that it must upgrade its facilities or risk losing its accreditation. So the zoo ditched its plan for a $75 million renovation and has begun a push for a new facility that would be double or triple the size of the current 14-acre location and could cost $120 million to $150 million.

Land Park residents, including members of its neighborhood association, said they were surprised by the news.

Stephanie Duncan, president of the Land Park Community Association, said the organization had no discussions with the zoo about a possible move before Wednesday afternoon’s announcement. She has since spoken to Jacobs, she said.

“I know there will be a range of opinions in the neighborhood about the zoo moving,” Duncan said. “The nostalgia is really strong. People absolutely love the zoo. They consider it their zoo. They love looking out and seeing the giraffes as they drive down Sutterville Road, waiting for the light to change.

“It would be sad to see it go. But ultimately we have to do what’s best for the animals, the zoo and the community overall. We are going to take some time in the coming weeks and months” to study the zoo’s plans, she said. “We need to have an open mind going into this.”

Sharon Noda, a Land Park resident for 62 of her 64 years, said the departure of the zoo would “leave a huge hole” in the neighborhood and in her heart.

Growing up, Noda’s family home was practically adjacent to the zoo. “We used to go to the zoo every day,” she recalled. “We’d see the seals, the penguins, the spider monkeys. It was wonderful.”

She still lives in Land Park, and as a real estate agent sells the zoo as a major attraction to potential homebuyers.

“It’s one of the best things about living in Land Park,” said Noda.

Jacobs, the zoo director, said a move to more expansive quarters would allow the zoo to bring back larger, “iconic” animals that it has phased out over the years because it cannot accommodate them to the accreditation agency’s standards. He said surveys have shown that people want to see big, splashy animals like hippos, tigers and great apes.

At the zoo on Thursday, Charlie Cooney, who is 7 years old and was visiting with his family from the Bay Area, affirmed that notion. “Elephants!” he said when asked which animals he would most like to see on exhibit.

Roseville resident Mike Ramey said he and his son Atom, 10, are Sacramento Zoo members who visit frequently.

But Atom prefers Oakland’s zoo, which has more space for animals like polar bears, hippos and elephants, he said.

Alison Leary, a Land Park resident who is a member of the neighborhood association, said she is “intrigued” by the proposal to relocate the zoo. She said the existing property could be turned into another treasured community institution should the zoo leave.

“While I would be sad to see it go, the possibilities associated with freeing up 14 acres of land in the park are exciting,” Leary said. “That space could house a lot of community amenities. We could add a community center, public library or city-centric museum to the park, build a community garden” or add tennis or basketball courts.

“I think an urban farm and community garden make the most sense, since the site is already set up for livestock,” said Leary. “You could generate revenue by selling produce and other products produced on site at a farm stand, and teach farming and cooking courses for community members.”

Neither the zoo nor the city, which owns the institution, has discussed possible future uses for the property.

But nothing would be quite like a zoo in your backyard, said Overstreet.

“I’m all for the animals being treated well, so I understand why they might want to do it,” she said of the proposed move. “I guess all good things do have to come to an end some day.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee