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ANIMAL HOUSES CHILDREN CAN FRATERNIZE WITH THEIR WILDER SIBLINGS.

Byline: Chris J. Parker Correspondent

America's zoos and aquariums collectively draw 134 million visitors each year - a larger attendance than the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball combined, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

So instead of the Raiders and the Rams, L.A. has the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara zoos. OK, the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens isn't in Los Angeles.

But it is one of the best small zoos in the country, and it's only a short, scenic drive from Los Angeles. Add the Los Angeles Zoo, and Angelenos have the rare bonus of top-notch large and small zoos within an easy drive. So what if San Diego has the Chargers and a world-famous zoo - it's a short distance away, too.

Raiders and Rams? Who needs 'em.

The Los Angeles Zoo is a big-city zoo in every way: 80 acres cascading over the Griffith Park foothills; exotic animals; lush vegetation; and perfect weather practically every day. It is L.A. - sprawling, with big exhibits for the celebrity animals and tract cages for the masses.

And the Santa Barbara Zoo is a lot like the coastal town it occupies: compact, gorgeous and - at the end of the day - totally satisfying.

The Los Angeles Zoo has been built like a giant fan going uphill, with the entrance at the bottom. The recently renovated Winnick Family Children's Zoo is the highlight of the zoo's lower section, with new exhibits and some old ones still around.

California sea lions play near the entrance of the Winnick center, barking their welcomes. The Animal Care Center lets visitors see some of the zoo's youngest animals, and the care they receive when their mothers are unable to care for them.

The children's zoo includes the prerequisite petting zoo, although this one seems abnormally loaded with goats. Nearby, the prairie dog exhibit lets kids ``pop up'' inside a prairie dog compound, thanks to strategically placed glass domes and an underground entrance.

The strength of the L.A. Zoo, though, lies in its upper region. That's where approximately 100 habitats display everything from A to Z - or alpacas to zebras. Kids get a sense of wildlife in the children's zoo, but, in the upper region, they see up-close the animals they've seen on television or in their computer games.

Highlights of the zoo's upper region include the Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains habitat, with its waterfall, viewing amphitheater and a glass viewing area that puts visitors next to the chimps' grassy play area. The Red Ape Rain Forest allows visitors to watch orangutans from only a few feet away.

This upper region also comprises the bulk of the zoo's 113 acres, making for one heck of a hike.

The best strategy for a family with small children is to take full advantage of the Safari Shuttle, a tram that loops the upper region of the zoo. For a small fee, visitors can hop on or off the tram at any of its six stations all day.

One of those stations is at the very top of the zoo, just above the lion exhibit. The tram also stops in front of the remote Play Park, a large playground for children. The tram won't eliminate all the walking, but it sure helps. Take the tram to the Play Park, and it's easy to walk downhill past one-third of the habitats to the tram stop near the World of Birds Show. Take the tram back to the top and walk downhill past the lions, chimps and red apes habitats to the tram station at Zoo Meadow. One more tram ride to the Koala House and the last third of the zoo - which includes the Australian region, camels and zebras - is easily within reach.

It doesn't take nearly as much planning to tour the Santa Barbara Zoo, or as much of the day. It also spreads up a hill, but at 30 acres it's much more compact. And the foothills near Santa Barbara's East Beach are considerably shorter than the Griffith Park foothills.

Along the Central Coast

The Santa Barbara Zoo doesn't have nearly the animal diversity of the Los Angeles Zoo, but it has most of the ``big name'' animals. And for kids, its small size - and the animals' closeness to their visitors - more than make up for a lack of Arabian oryxes.

The Santa Barbara Zoo includes elephants, giraffes, gorillas, a lion, sea lions and plenty of lemurs. Habitats are small, and there's nothing as grand as the Los Angeles Zoo's chimpanzee or red ape exhibits, although the gorilla habitat does put viewers much closer to the animals than does the L.A. Zoo's gorilla exhibit.

The strength of the Santa Barbara Zoo is in its size. This is a kid-size zoo, and the animals seem only an arm's length away. The sea lions swim at the feet of visitors, the lions are only a single fence away from freedom and the giraffes could get their ears scratched if they'd just come over to the viewing area more often. Or so it seems.

Even the zoo's train is kid-sized, although adults can also fit inside its pint-size cars.

ZOOS FOR YOU TO PERUSE

LOS ANGELES ZOO

Where: 5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas.

How much: Admission is $8.25 for adults, $5.25 for seniors and $3.25 for children 2 to 12. Safari Shuttle is $3.75 for adults, $1.75 for children and $1 for seniors and physically disabled visitors. Parking is free.

Information: (323) 644-6400 or www.lazoo.org.

Food: There are numerous restaurants, snack shacks and vending machines throughout the zoo, but most comestibles are at zoo-inflated prices. Visitors are allowed to bring food into the zoo, and there are numerous picnic areas within its grounds. Alcohol can't be brought into the zoo, but beer is sold at some of the snack shops and restaurants.

Getting around: The zoo meanders across 80 acres and up hillsides, making exhibits such as the ostriches and warthogs quite a hike from the entrance. Purchase a ride on the zoo's Safari Shuttle and you can get on and off any of the shuttle's six stops all day.

Extras:!rpt The zoo offers stroller rental and has hats, film, water, etc. for sale at gift shops near the entrance, in addition to souvenirs.

Don't forget: A camera and film, walking shoes, water, suntan lotion, snacks (or an entire lunch) and a stroller or wagon for the youngest children.

SANTA BARBARA ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS

Where: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

How much: Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors (60+) and children (2 to 12). Miniature Train is $1.50 for adults, $1 for children. Parking is $2.

Information: (805) 962-5339 or www.santabarbarazoo.org.

Food: This zoo was built for picnics, and its official map lists 10 areas that are perfect for a packed lunch. Inside the zoo there is one main restaurant - the Ridley-Tree House Restaurant - and it serves salads, hamburgers, sandwiches and kids meals at zoo-inflated prices. There's also a snack shack - with a long menu of ice cream novelties - and a couple of strategically placed food carts.

Getting around: The zoo covers 30 acres of hilly terrain, but the pathways are cut to minimize the ups and downs. While the miniature train is adorable, it's a nonstop trip around the zoo's circumference and not a means of getting to other parts of the zoo. The group picnic area at the zoo's summit is one of the most scenic, with the Channel Islands stretched out across deep-blue ocean waters that seem only a stone's throw away.

Extras: The zoo offers stroller, wagon and wheelchair rentals and has hats, film, water, etc. for sale at the gift shops near the entrance, in addition to souvenirs.

Don't forget: A camera and film, walking shoes, water, suntan lotion, snacks (or an entire lunch) and a stroller or wagon for the youngest children.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box, 2 maps

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Trenton Smith, 4, of Oregon views a passing sea lion at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

(2) Carmen Cabrera, 10, and her sister Laura, 4, of Oxnard, bubble up to commune with a prairie dog in an exhibit at the Children's Zoo section of the Los Angeles Zoo.

(3) no caption (giraffe)

(4) The Santa Barbara Zoo's miniature train zips its passengers around the compound.

(5) no caption (deer)

(6) no caption (children petting a goat)

(7) Visitors observe the habits of sea lions - and vice versa - at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

Box:

ZOOS FOR YOU TO PERUSE (see text)

Map:

(1) Los Angels Zoo

(2) Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 16, 2002
Words:1472
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