It’s hard to remember a time without CALM, a magnet for field trips, families oohing and aahing at the annual Holiday Lights and parents introducing their children to the native animals that live there, in the hills east of Bakersfield. Only 15 minutes from downtown, CALM, with its native California plants and trees, bobcats, bears, badgers and sense of tranquility feels like another place entirely.

But in 1980, it was still just a dream. That was the year CALM was established as a nonprofit, and from around then until opening day, in the spring of 1983, a small army was hard at work trying to make the zoo of native California animals a reality, setting it up to grow into the beloved destination it is today.

Now approaching its 34th anniversary, the zoo will host its annual birthday bash on May 13, when man and animal alike will celebrate the efforts past and present to make it educational for its guests and a safe haven for its residents. For that event, there will be even more animals at the zoo, as Jeff Lee from Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife will bring some animals from around the world. Zookeepers will lead chats, and guests can get up-close with the zoo’s ambassador animals. And the wildlife will celebrate with birthday “cakes,” all made to be perfectly healthy for them.

Three key figures in CALM’s story recently sat down to talk about how the zoo came to be, what it was like in its early days and what they hope for its future. But founding board member Stan Eschner, zoo manager Lana Fain and Steve Sanders, chief of staff at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which oversees the zoo, will each remind you they are just three of many, many people integral to the zoo’s formation and success.

Exotic California wildlife

It all started with Mike Hopkins, then a school teacher, who was inspired by his time studying wildlife in India with conservationist Arjan Singh and the World Wildlife Fund. Writing about the zoo’s origin in 2008 for its 25th birthday, Hopkins said it dawned on him that the water buffalo, tigers and leopards in India weren’t any more exotic than mountain lions, condors or porcupines of California.

“A California black bear was every bit as interesting and beautiful as an Indian Sun bear,” wrote Hopkins, who now lives in Costa Rica saving sea turtles. “I realized that I had traveled halfway around the world to see and study tigers, but I had never actually seen a mountain lion in the wild in all the years I grew up and lived in California.”

Partnering with veterinarian Tom Banks and architect Frank Ghezzi, Hopkins got the land for CALM around 1980, and with a $10,000 donation from 10 founding members, the team behind CALM had $100,000 to make the dream a reality. But it wasn’t easy.

“You see a zoo, you see the exhibits, but what you don’t see is all the planning,” Eschner said. “When you have a new facility, you have to design it. It doesn’t just go pop (and appear). There’s a couple years of effort where everybody has to put their two cents’ worth, maybe a lot more than that.”

And a lot of the work the board of directors — then a massive group of 50 — took on themselves. Eschner recalled weekends when they’d go to the zoo to move rocks, one by one.

“Back then, the board of directors would come out on Saturdays and Sundays and dig trenches, lay pipe, put stuff in,” said Fain, who was at the zoo on opening day and has worked or been involved with it since the ‘90s. “Some of it maybe is a little askew, because we will find PVC pipe that goes absolutely nowhere.”

But they did it themselves because that was what it took. Eschner said it was grow to survive from day one, always “a tough, tough battle.”

CALM’s staff now is fairly small, with Fain, eight full-time keepers, a groundskeeper and maintenance worker and a few employees in the office and gift shop. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s it wasn’t uncommon for one keeper to be the only one at the zoo, besides the animals.

“In the early years, there was no plumbing,” Fain said. “There was nothing out there. What they did was they took a little hollowed out VW, and they filled it with buckets of water to get to the different enclosures that were out there. Everything was watered by a bucket.”

About those animals: There were around 100 when the zoo opened, including ducks and geese in a lake, goats and other animals in a petting zoo, plenty of birds, coyote, bobcats and a donkey named Sophie, who is still there today. The first animal was a mountain lion named Whisker.

“Whisker was so tame that when it was young, Mike (Hopkins) would walk it around on a leash on the grounds,” Eschner said. “We actually had a Downtown Rotary meeting, and I had him bring Whisker, and he walked around and everyone was kind of (scared).”

Although some members of the public were initially unhappy about the animals living in the zoo, preferring to see them in the wild, the fact that these were animals who would likely not survive if released eventually won them over, with people coming for family outings or school field trips.

But CALM ran into financial issues just like plenty of zoos and museums do. The board often started projects without enough funding to finish them, hoping the community would help cover the rest. Things were looking dire by the mid-’90s.

“CALM was ready to go under,” Eschner said. “We could not quite cut it.”

Around that time at executive board meetings, Fain added, “we would literally pass a hat around to cover staff’s (pay).”

Next 34 years at CALM

Enter the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, which came to the rescue in 1995 when the private nonprofit foundation that owns the zoo appealed to Kelly Blanton, who ran the school organization at that time.

“Our office took it over, and, really, not only saved CALM but has kind of grown it and continues to operate it today,” Sanders said.

With that move, the foundation board went from 50 to nine members. The foundation now focuses on capital improvements and raising money for exhibits and repairs while KCSOS focuses on the operational side, Sanders said. The county-owned land is leased free of charge to the zoo.

Attendance that first year was somewhere around 900. Now? CALM sees more than 70,000 guests, not including Holiday Lights, which brings in another 55,000 a year. Seeing the zoo go from a huge dream to a logistical marathon to a beloved part of the Kern County community makes the three proud, but more than anything, they’re glad it lets them continue to educate guests about the 250-plus animals that live there.

“The idea here isn’t just to let them learn names, but it’s to teach them that they have a responsibility for these animals,” Eschner said, “because there’s so many people on this planet and so much technology, we could wipe out all the other animals. We really have the responsibility to maintain them and care for them.”

The animals guests see in the exhibits account for only part of CALM’s work. The zoo is also busy with rehabilitation efforts, getting between 600 to 800 animals every year, Fain said. Keepers, whom she called the heart of CALM, care for those animals in triple-digit weather, in the cold and often take them home with them for additional care.

“We have several endangered species out there that are close to not being here anymore,” she said. “The other side of the facility that a lot of people don’t know about is our wildlife rehabilitation program.”

Work on CALM never ends. The zoo the public sees is about 14 acres, but 50 additional acres beg for new exhibits. The most recent finished project was the California Coast Room that opened in January. It’s the first of two projects to bring the museum “into modern times,” Sanders said.

“We’re always looking to do more interactive, hands-on things for kids,” Sanders said, noting that the touch tank accomplishes that perfectly. “We are doing all new signage at CALM, which is up, and then in the next couple months we’ll be releasing an app for CALM where people will be able to hear stories about our animals ... that will interact with our signage.”

Fain has seen much of zoo’s growth first-hand and expressed how important the community has been in it growing.

“At 34 years, we’re still very much, in zoo-terms, in our infancy,” Fain said. “And when you see how far we’ve grown — I was out there the first weekend it opened, and I remember it vividly. My concern was I would hear people say, ‘Well, there’s nothing out here. Why come back?’ That’s just it: Keep coming back and volunteer ... and it’s just going to grow.”

Eschner, Fain and Sanders said they hope CALM continues on for another 34 years and then some, though they’ll need some people to take up the fight when they’re gone. Fain said she’d like to see every square acre covered in exhibits in 34 years, “with a request for more acreage being fulfilled,” Eschner added.

“I think that it continues to grow as this community grows and continues to be a place that people are proud of and take pride in and that it educates kids,” Sanders said. “Based on where it’s come in the last 34 years, I think we’re all pretty confident it will continue on that path.”

The key to all that, of course, is public support.

“When you come out and pay for an admission ticket, either for the zoo or for Holiday Lights, you’re not just getting a zoo visit; you’re investing in CALM,” Fain said. “It’s an investment in your community. We’ve come such a long way, and we’ve got so much further to go. With this continued support of this community, we’re going to see a lot of great things happen out there.”

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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