Mission Creep

Mission Santa Barbara

California has given birth to many beautiful myths. Unfortunately, they frequently have little bearing on the actual history of the Golden State. For instance, the twenty-one Franciscan missions founded by Father Junipero Serra—who has been canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2015—are among the most peaceful places I have ever visited. Yet they were little more than rural concentration camps in which thousands of Californian Indians found their way to early graves.

If you look at a map of the mission location, you will find that they are all strung out like so many pearls along the Camino Réal closely following the coastline. Indians who dwelt close to the coast were rounded up and assigned as peons to the various missions, where they were worked to death. During the heyday of the missions from 1769 to 1834, some 53,600 adult Indians were baptized, and 37,000 were buried.

The Graveyard of the Santa Barbara Mission

Visiting the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions, I was stunned to find that the postage-stamp-sized cemeteries adjoining the missions held 3,936 and 1,227 bodies respectively. Why is this? The Indians attached to the missions (they were not allowed to leave) were essentially overworked and underfed. When they lived in the missions, the Indians lived in permanent adobe structures that were infested with fleas. Young Indian maidens were treated as nuns and confined to barracks in which the rooms were 50 feet long by 21 feet wide with bunks ranged around the walls. A single high window provided the only ventilation, while the center of the room was an improvised sewer or latrine.

According to Carey McWilliams in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land:

To understand what conversion meant to the Indian, it should be remembered that the process of Missionization necessitated a sudden transition from the settled, customary existence of the Indian in a small rancheria or village to the almost urban conditions that prevailed in the larger Mission establishments. The change … must have come as a deep mental shock to the Indian.

As much as I respect much of Catholic teaching from my long education in religious elementary and high schools, I cannot condone many practices of the past, such as the Inquisition and the treatment of native peoples in the missions.

RIP Sujatha and Little Mac

Sujatha and Little Mac Together (Which Is Which?) in 2013

In yesterday’s post, I wondered what happened to the elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo. When we got home yesterday, I looked them up on Google and found that both had died, Sujatha in 2018 and Little Mac in 2019. Although I have no pets, I have felt a sense of loss for these two Indian elephants who had been together at the zoo since 1972. You can read more about them in this article from Radio Station KSBY’s website.

Apparently, despite their size, Indian elephants do not normally live as long as humans. In fact, after 40 years they are considered to be due for geriatric care. Little Mac had to be euthanized at the age of 48.

My relationship with the animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo surprises even me. It is a small zoo, walkable in a couple of scant hours, but I feel more strongly about the birds and animals there. Why?

Gemina, the Giraffe with the Deformed Neck

I had become enamored of a giraffe named Gemina who died of natural causes in 2008 despite a neck that went off at a ninety degree angle. Despite her neck, Gemina lived a greater than normal lifespan (by six years) and had normal offspring. When I heard that Gemina had passed on, I was disturbed, hoping that she did not die in inordinate pain occasioned by her disability. Apparently she didn’t. She received excellent care at the zoo and was widely mourned.

So now that the elephants are gone, their home will be turned into the “Australian Walkabout” some time this summer. I will continue to return to the zoo whenever I can so that I can see my other friends there.

In Cloudy Santa Barbara

Humboldt Penguin at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Today Martine and I set out for the Santa Barbara Zoo, which is open for prepaid admissions. The Spring marine layer was in force, with heavy clouds and some drizzle between Ventura and Santa Barbara. It had stopped by the time we got to the zoo, so we were hopeful. We had a nice time despite the absence of the elephants (which were being replaced by an “Australian Walkabout” of some sort.) Also, the aviaries and some of the indoor exhibits were closed down “because of the virus.” Also, many other animals were either missing or hiding from view.

I suppose I could understand this. If I were in a cage at the zoo, I would not be too terribly interested in gaping at the teams of children and their harried parents. So I would probably present them with my hindquarters, like the above Humboldt Penguin. (Curiously enough, these Penguins come from near the Equator off the coast of Peru—not Antarctica.)

One animal which had no problem facing down the staring zoo visitors was the African lion:

We were done in about an hour, but satisfied by our walk in the cool, cloudy weather. Zoos are never perfect, but the small Santa Barbara Zoo is better than most. The LA Zoo is characterized by massive traffic jams and stroller collisions with adult ankles.

After the zoo, we drove down to the harbor and had lunch at Brophy Brothers, one of our favorite seafood restaurants in Southern California. Their New England clam chowder is to die for, and I also enjoyed the grilled mahi mahi sandwich.

By the time we were headed back home, the sun came out around Ventura and stuck around for the rest of the afternoon. In celebration, we drove home on the relatively uncrowded California 126 and stopped for strawberries the size of clenched fists at Francisco’s Fruit Stand in Fillmore. Also I picked up some yummy dried mangos and Banderita Mexican cocoanut candy.

It was a fun day, probably the most fun we had together since the onset of the plague in March 2020.

Tropical Penguins

Feeding Time for the Humboldt Penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo

I am looking back to a visit Martine and I made to the Santa Barbara Zoo some ten years ago this month. At the time, penguins interested me more and more. In 2006, I had seen some Magellanic penguins at Isla Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s State of Tierra Del Fuego.

In 2010, I had hopes of talking Martine into coming with me to Argentina in 2011 (which she did) and seeing the penguins at Pájaros and Punta del Tombo in the State of Chubut.

The penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo are similar to the Magellanic penguins of Argentina, but they inhabit warmer country, namely the coastal regions of Northern Chile (site of the Atacama Desert) and Peru.

Lone Humboldt Penguin

I have always regarded the penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo as my favorite exhibit. Clumsy on land, the Humboldts swim with speed, fury, and precision. (For that reason, they are much harder to photograph when they’re in the water.)

Flamingo Road

Chilean Flamingos at the Santa Barbara Zoo

On Saturday, Martine and I drove to Santa Barbara for a fish and chips lunch at the Harbor and a visit to the local zoo. Los Angeles has a bigger zoo, but it’s too big, too crowded—and it’s difficult to get buy without multiple stroller collision injuries. They’re always doing construction and forcing large numbers of visitors down narrow pathways, ending up with massive foot traffic jams.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, there are two smaller museums that I love: The Living Desert in the Coachella Valley and the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Like all zoos, it is impossible to see all the animals because:

  • Some of them have been withdrawn for various reasons
  • Others prefer to be in hiding, escaping the prying eyes of the gawkers

No matter, I got an eyeful of what I wanted to see, especially Chadwick the African lion, who is usually in the latter category, except that he is visible from the little train ride that circles the 32 acres of the zoo. Plus we saw the elephants, the gibbons, the Humboldt penguins, the giraffes (who have a much harder time of it if they wanted to hide). Oh yes, we also saw (and smelled) the Chilean Flamingos.

Bronze Plaque Honoring Gemina the Crooked Neck Giraffe

There is even a nice bronze plaque commemorating Gemina, the zoo’s late “crooked neck giraffe,” who died in 2008. I remember seeing her, with her neck that took off at a 90 degree angle midway up. It looked incredibly painful; but Gemina had a longer than normal life and was attractive enough to at least one male giraffe who made her a successful mother with healthy issue. One of these days, I’ll try to find one of my pictures of Gemina. I know I took several on former trips to the zoo.

 

At the Santa Barbara Zoo and Mission

Meerkat on Guard at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Today I rented a car to take Martine and me to Santa Barbara. My 1994 Nissan Pathfinder has a brake warning light and ABS warning light, requiring me to take it into the shop on Monday. (Even without the warning lights, I would have rented a car. It would be far cheaper than towing the Nissan great distances.)

It doesn’t take long to “do” the SB Zoo, which at 30 acres merits about two hours, more if you want to sit down and take in the atmosphere. It is only a few hundred yards from Cabrillo Beach, which makes it all the better. And today was a relatively cool day.

After the zoo, we had some extra time, so we revisited the Santa Barbara Mission—founded in 1789 by Padre Fermín Lasuén, who took over the entire chain of twenty-one missions for Padre Junípero Serra after the latter’s death. I know that the Spanish missions were involved in the suppression of the local Indian tribes, yet remain as so many islands of peace dotting the California landscape.

The Santa Barbara Franciscan Mission

As we were touring the mission’s museum, one of the old Franciscan padres introduced himself to us. He looked frail, probably in his eighties, but was friendly. We toured the old church and the adjoining small cemetery as well. According to a sign in the cemetery, there are some 800 Chumash Indians buried there, not to mention the Spanish conquistadors and subsequent American settlers and their families.

On the way home, we decided to skip the coastal route (there was serious construction on Route 1 in Santa Monica) and the even more crowded U.S. 101 in favor of Route 126 through Santa Paula and Fillmore. It added perhaps ten miles to our trip, but it was more restful driving through all that farm country. Plus, we stopped at Cornejo’s fruit stand near Fillmore to buy some white peaches and plums.

Gemina

Gemina, the Giraffe With the Crooked Neck

Tomorrow, I will take Martine to one of our favorite places, the Santa Barbara Zoo. Martine will probably leave me at some point in the next two or three weeks, so I want to spend some of that time revisiting places we love.

Although Los Angeles has a bigger zoo, it is so crowded and so constricted by constant construction that visitors have a hard time negotiating the paths without getting run over by harassed parents pushing strollers. As their website says, the SB Zoo has 500 animals and only 30 acres. That’s just about our speed, and tomorrow promises to be a nice day.

The most remarkable animal we have seen at the Zoo is the late Gemina, the giraffe with the crooked neck. The following long quote is a release from the zoo that I thought I’d like to pass on to you:

If you visited the Zoo between 1990 and 2008, you probably saw an unusual giraffe. Her name was Gemina and she had a crook in her neck.

Born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now San Diego Safari Park) in 1986, Gemina was a Baringo (or Rothschild’s) giraffe, and joined the Santa Barbara Zoo’s giraffe herd when she was just about a year old.

Her neck seemed normal until a bump appeared when she was around three years old. Slowly, over time, it sharpened into a distinctive “V”, which interrupted the graceful curve of her neck.

Though she was examined by veterinarians, a cause for the crook could not be determined. The good news? In spite of her appearance, she didn’t exhibit any signs of being in pain.

In fact, the crook didn’t hamper Gemina’s life at the Zoo. She received normal treatment by zookeepers, ate normally, gave birth to a calf, and was an accepted member of the Zoo’s giraffe herd. She was beloved by our guests, locals and visitors alike.

Long before I came to work here as the Zoo’s publicist, management had decided not to sensationalize Gemina. We could have emblazoned her image on t-shirts and made banners with her silhouette, but that’s not our style. She was a member of the giraffe herd, and not to be exploited. We responded to media requests, but didn’t push out the story.

But Gemina became an icon in spite of our low-key approach. In its second season (2004), “The Bachelor” filmed a sunset dinner at the giraffe exhibit, and the couple met Gemina. In the 2005 television show “Miracle Workers,” she was the source of inspiration for a young boy with severe scoliosis. In 2007, she was voted Number One of the “Seven Wonders of Santa Barbara” in a local radio station poll.

Martine at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2007 … in Happier Times

By then, she was 20 years old, which is elderly for a giraffe in captivity. We threw a party for her 21st birthday, knowing that her time was nearing an end. Many of us had tears in our eyes when Zoo Campers, wearing self-made giraffe hats, sang “Happy Birthday.”

She lived another five months, before she stopped eating and her health declined. Gemina was humanely euthanized on January 9, 2008. It was a sad day at the Zoo.

But her memory lives on. Gemina is still the most asked-about animal at the Zoo, even eight years later. A children’s book, “Gemina the Crooked-Neck Giraffe,” written and illustrated by Karen B. Winnick, was released in 2013, and is still for sale in the Zoo Gift Store (all proceeds benefit the Zoo).

Now, her fans can again visit Gemina. Her distinctive top six vertebrae, skull, and jawbone have been preserved and rearticulated, and are now on view in a display case as part of the Zoo’s “Animals…Inside Out” art exhibit in the Discovery Pavilion’s Volentine Gallery.

It’s free, with admission, to view Gemina and the exhibit of cool animal x-rays. Gemina’s skeleton is on view 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

Thanks goes to Skulls Unlimited for her skeletal work, and to TruPart, a Ventura company, for building the display case free of charge.

Gemina reminds us all that being different is just fine. She’s a reminder to me not to blithely feed the media’s appetite for the odd and outrageous. That we can tell a quieter story, about being accepted in a herd of your peers and loved by a generation of visitors. That one giraffe can still stand tall, even with a crooked neck.

 

Islands of Peace

The Church at Mission Santa Barbara

The Church at Mission Santa Barbara with Martine in the Foreground

The California Missions are probably the state’s best claim to a rich history going back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I find it nothing less than amazing that most if not all of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra’s missions are still in existence, after all the earthquakes, fires, and other disasters to which California is prone.

Mission Santa Barbara is one of four missions dedicated to converting and regimenting the Chumash Indians of the area (the others are La Purisima in Lompoc, Santa Ynez in Solvang, and San Buenaventura in Ventura). Although Father Serra was declared beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, there are still unresolved issues regarding mistreatment of the Indians. Each of the missions also contained Spanish military barracks for troops enforcing the political dictates of the Spanish Viceroys. So it is not uncommon to find stories where the Indians were both helped and repressed by the Missions and their dual religious and political functions.

Chumash Painting of St. Francis

Chumash Painting of St. Francis

Whatever really happened at these missions, today they are, collectively, a cultural treasure—islands of peace dotted along the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. I have visited perhaps ten of them so far and hope to see the rest of them eventually.

Martine and I visited Mission Santa Barbara (for the third or fourth time) on Saturday during our recent trip to the area.

 

 

Native Greenery

A Trail Through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

A Trail Through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

It’s remarkable how many of the plants we regard as being typical of California are actually imports. For instance, there is the jacaranda tree, which originally hails from Bolivia and Argentina, and the eucalyptus, an import from Australia.And it’s not only the trees, but also wildflowers, “weeds,” grasses, and other plants which came from elsewhere and spread like wildfire. Did you know, for instance, that the Tumblin’ Tumbleweed of song is actually called the Russian Thistle and comes from, you guessed it, the steppes of Eurasia.

On a hot Saturday last weekend, Martine and I took a circular trail through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting native California plants. We went through some forty ounces of cold Dasani water as we took every opportunity to sit down on shady benches and look around us.

We had tried to visit the Botanic Garden once before, but that was at the time of the Jesusita Fire of May 2009, which actually consumed part of the gardens. In fact, part of the gardens that were affected are shown in the photo above. In four years, the grasses and shrubbery bounced back quickly, though many of the tree trunks are scarred with burn marks.

The wilder parts of Southern California, such as the Botanic Gardens, which are in the foothills of the mountains around Santa Barbara, have a distinctive look and feel. They are not as “friendly” as Eastern forests. Mainly, that is because so many of the plants are somewhat prickly. In the spring at least, there is ample greenery everywhere; but once the fall months approach, much of it dries out and turns light brown until the next rainy season starts the whole cycle over again.

The road to the Botanic Gardens is tricky. You head uphill past the Santa Barbara Mission and take three or four roads to get to your destination. Fortunately, there are helpful directional signs along the way. Although the Gardens don’t get that many visitors, it is a worthwhile place to visit and good for soothing the soul of someone who has just survived a brutal tax season.

 

Penguin Feeding Time

Friday Afternoon Penguin Feeding

Friday Afternoon Penguin Feeding

I have always loved penguins. They are at one and the same time naive and well able to defend themselves with their razor-sharp beaks. The penguins on display at the Santa Barbara Zoo, which Martine and I visited last Friday, are Humboldt Penguins from around Peru, close to the Equator.

Never have I seen any emperor penguins, though I did see one disconsolate king penguin in Tierra Del Fuego in 2011 who got lost from his group and wound up with a colony of Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins on Isla Martillo in the Beagle Channel. (See picture below.)

Lost King Penguin in Argentina

Lost King Penguin in Argentina

That King Penguin was making a nuisance of himself by trying to mate with the smaller local penguins, who were having none of that particular type of miscegenation.

Why do Martine and I like the Santa Barbara Zoo instead of the much larger one at Griffith Park in Los Angeles? It seems that every time we go to the L.A. Zoo, they are undergoing major construction, forcing large crowds of people into narrow walkways past some upcoming future attraction. Until that future attraction arrives in the sweet by-and-by, we would be assailed by countless strollers wielded by desperate parents pushing their progeny through a surly mob. The future is nice, but I usually make my judgments based on the present.

There is some construction going on at the Santa Barbara Zoo, but it is small-scale compared to the pharaonic scale of L.A.

I’ve always loved zoos. We had a good time in November 2011 at the Buenos Aires Zoo, and I am toying with the idea of visiting the small Reykjavik Zoo in Iceland this June.

It was pretty hot the two days we were in Santa Barbara, but there are always a lot of shady benches for us to rest and re-hydrate ourselves.