By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
SANTA ANA — Matteo, a three-year-old crested capuchin monkey, is shrieking at Kent Yamaguchi.
“Some of them recognize me,” said Yamaguchi, director of the Santa Ana Zoo. “It means I’m his friend. Isn’t that cute?”
Indeed, as Yamaguchi approaches the enclosure, the small monkey sees him and moves closer, eyeing with curiosity the 51-year-old Sansei zoo director. It’s part of Yamaguchi’s job to make sure that Matteo and all the other animals at the Santa Ana Zoo are happy and healthy. Located just off the 5 Freeway in Santa Ana, the zoo sits on just 20 acres, a small oasis that is home to 78 species of furry and feathered creatures.
Of the 223 zoos accredited nationwide by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, Yamaguchi is the only Asian American zoo director. He received degrees in biology and applied ecology from UC Irvine and has worked at the zoo for 23 years. Yamaguchi, who was born in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, grew up in North Tustin watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” with Marlin Perkins. As he explained, he always had an interest in animals — just not the ones you might expect.
“As a child, we didn’t have fuzzy pets because of my allergies. Growing up, my pets were praying mantis and insects. So I liked animals just in a different form than you would find in a zoo,” he said.
Even today, Yamaguchi has allergies to fur, feathers, pollen and dust and keeps Claritin nearby as he goes about his daily rounds.
“If a keeper has been handling really fluffy rabbits or chinchillas my eyes start watering,” he said.
His parents, Bill and Mickey Yamaguchi, encouraged their son’s interests with trips to catch butterflies and visits to the L.A. County Natural History Museum and the Santa Ana Zoo. Yamaguchi credited his parents for letting their kids follow their dreams toward career paths that might seem unconventional. His brother, Steven, is executive presbyter of the Los Ranchos Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church.
“They’re proud of me. I guess I was a different child and they’re glad I found a good place. My folks are very proud of all their kids,” he said.
One of his first jobs at the zoo was as a registrar for the animals, who collects the paperwork for the animals and makes shipping arrangements when a new animal is acquired. Among the zoo’s recent additions are a pair of stately giant anteaters from Guyana, including Peter, UC Irvine’s official mascot.
Yamaguchi worked as curator of education for 15 years and later became secretary to the zoo director, learning the administrative side of zoo operations, including budgeting, accounting and payroll. When the zoo director retired, Yamaguchi applied for the job and was hired in January 2009, taking responsibility for the zoo and its unique stipulation that requires it maintain 50 monkeys in its collection at all times.
The stipulation was made by Joseph Edward Prentice, a local citrus grower, who donated the property for the zoo on the condition that there are always 50 monkeys. When Yamaguchi took over two years ago, he immediately faced a major monkey crisis when the Orange County Register found out that the zoo had gone below their 50-monkey threshold.
“Someone called the OC Register and said, ‘They are down to 48,’ ” Yamaguchi explained. “My first week I became spokesperson of the monkey zoo!”
Kidding aside, the stipulation is very real, and a relative of Prentice comes regularly to count the monkeys. With all that pressure bearing down on the new director, a miracle — or rather, two — literally got the media monkey off his back.
“Monkeys do what they need to do to make little babies. On Jan. 20, one of the monkeys had twins, so when the reporter came we were at 50,” he said, smiling.
Since then, Santa Ana Zoo keeps a buffer of monkeys, currently at 57. Most of the animals are from Central and South America, and many of the areas have the feel of a tropical rain forest, even on a chilly Southern California afternoon.
Next weekend, Santa Ana Zoo will celebrate its 59th birthday with activities including birthday-themed crafts, live entertainment and a modular train display by the Del Oro Pacific Railroad Club.
Walking around the zoo with Yamaguchi, it’s clear he loves his job.
“Some people have a stressful job. My job can be very stressful too, but I remember on a very stressful day, all I have to do is walk out of my office and watch the monkeys play and it centers me, reminds me where I’m at,” he said. “Our mission is to instill a passion for the natural word. We want people to enjoy themselves, and create those experiences where families interact. Here is a safe place to relax and interact.”
The Santa Ana Zoo, located at 1801 E. Chestnut Ave. in Santa Ana, is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day. The 59th birthday party is open to the general public. Activities will take place from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and are free with the price of admission for the general public and free for members. The Conservation Carousel and Zoofari Express train rides will be available for $3 each, and combo tickets for $5 each. Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and children, free for kids under 3. For more information, call (714) 836-4000 or visit www.santaanazoo.org.