California Living Museum's three newest residents were a little shy at the official opening of the zoo's new bighorn sheep exhibit Thursday.
The plan was to open the door to a little warehouse where they'd been staying for a few weeks while their habitat was prepared. They would emerge to the adoring oos and ahs of fans and everyone would cheer.
But the ram and two ewes wouldn't come out.
After an awkward, silent pause, someone who apparently was in the shed radioed a zoo staffer in the anxious crowd outside: "They're checking it out there. They're getting warmed up."
Another minute or two passed, and finally a male on extended loan from the Los Angeles Zoo peeked around a corner and sniffed the air. Stepping gingerly onto the habitat of dirt, grass, rocks and tumbleweeds, he raised his majestic head with its crown of spiraled horns and looked back as if to say, "Come on out, it's safe."
Then the two smaller ewes came out, taking baby steps as they surveyed their new surroundings suspiciously. The two females, with shorter horns that don't curl, are on loan from the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
The as yet unnamed animals are all adults and will establish CALM's breeding stock and eventually a new herd before they rotate to other zoos.
The loan is part of a cooperative program between six zoos to enlarge and diversify the genetic pool of endangered or threatened bighorn sheep in their care.
There are only about 13,000 desert bighorn sheep in the wild, about one-tenth the population that existed when Europeans first settled the West, according to CALM. There are 46 of them in captivity, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The rare animals didn't cost CALM anything, but the CALM Foundation paid for their $250,000 new habitat with proceeds from the Holiday Lights at CALM program, the annual Christmas light display at the zoo that runs from Nov. 30 through Dec. 31 (closed Christmas Day).
"What a wonderful time to be a part of CALM," said Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier, noting that just last week more than 300 volunteers built the zoo a new playground, and the holiday display of more than 2 million lights on the zoo grounds would be opening in just a few weeks.
The Office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools owns and operates the zoo, which specializes in animals native to California.
Tickets to Holiday Lights at CALM should be viewed as an investment, Frazier said, then gestured to the sheep behind her. "We're just thrilled," she said. "They're beautiful."
This is the second major new exhibit to open at CALM in as many years. The zoo added a mountain lion exhibit prior to this one.
Adult desert bighorn rams weigh between 150 and 200 pounds, smaller than the better known Rocky Mountain bighorn rams that range from 160 to 250 pounds and are famous for their ability to scale steep mountain ledges.
Desert bighorn sheep are more accustomed to the terrain of Kern County, where the animals have historical ties to the region's native peoples. Desert bighorn sheep are quite drought-hardy, having adapted to the harsh environment of the hot, dry desert.
Because CALM's trio has only one male, he'll have no one to clash horns with during mating season, which runs from August to November. The animal's continually growing horns have rings on them that reveal a sheep's age just like the rings of a tree.
The male at CALM is 6 years old, and his potential mates are ages 8 and 1, respectively. A sheep is mature enough to begin breeding at about 4 years old.
"Hopefully we will have little ones soon," said CALM manager Lana Fain.