Butch the elephant stands 10 feet tall and his long trunk—with its astounding dexterity—makes his height seem almost insignificant. His eyelashes are the length of an adult’s hand, his demeanor that of a cat lounging in the sun. He eagerly, yet gently, shovels carrots into his impressive mouth while his best pal, Jasmine the zebra, watches. Butch is one of two elephants that live at Monterey County’s first zoo, a sprawling facility that’s brought founder Charlie Sammut’s vision to life. Sammut’s accreditation by the Zoological Association of America was granted in June of 2020. It’s not that meritorious achievement, but the connections being fostered, that makes Sammut most proud.
“Zoos are supposed to make animals important to people,” he says. “That’s our purpose. That is what we’re here for. We want people to leave here feeling the animals are worth contributing to, worth protecting.”
The zoo is a dream come to life for Sammut, a well-known animal trainer, conservationist, and advocate. “It took seven years of begging for money by fundraising, then spending it as fast as we could get it to show progress, then still fundraising,” Sammut explains of bringing his $7 million project to fruition. There were almost no labor costs because Sammut has lain stake in the zoo literally and figuratively: he and two other men installed every foot of wooden fence that lines much of the 50-acre property. They poured every slab of cement. Only one external company was used to supply the tall fencing.
It’s a breezy but vibrantly sunny day on River Road between Monterey and Salinas where the Monterey Zoo (formerly known as Wild Things) is located. Despite having to skip its scheduled grand opening due to COVID-19, and not yet advertising, there’s a steady stream of guests, all wearing masks. Visitors point and giggle at the monkeys. Children catalogue the exotic animals in awe. Eleven-year-old twins, Sean and Shyla from Las Vegas, were enamored with the giant tortoises and the bearcat, officially a Binturong named Doc. “We love it here,” they say.
“We haven’t gotten to see these animals anywhere else.”
Owen, a 14-year-old from Carmel, sauntered through the property with relatives who were visiting from the Bay Area. “My favorite is the black leopard,” he says. “He just looks lethal! I’d think you’d have to go more south to see something like this,” he said excitedly. “You don’t have to drive far. It’s not packed. It’s great.”
Sammut and his crew know that most visitors and their phones can’t be parted, so they posted QR codes—scan codes for phones—that allow visitors to see three-minute videos of the animals as babies and interacting with caretakers.
“You can’t fight technology, so we use it to reel-in people’s interests,” Sammut says, adding they also cut down on waste by not having paper maps. Another unique touch is the tribute to Sammut’s first lion and best friend Josef, whose likeness is stamped into cement in many places throughout the zoo.
Despite the successes, Sammut is up against some detractors. An extremist animal activist group has demanded that he surrender his elephants to them, despite the elephants living on a five-acre pasture that includes heated indoor barns, a huge watering pool, toys, several other animal species as roommates and much more.
“Sanctuaries can be great,” he says. “But for animals like Butch (the elephant) who need medical care every day, it’s not an option. He could die within months at a sanctuary. Here, we can treat his chronic injury every day while still offering him a wonderful quality of life. Can we give all animals what they have spatially in the wild? Of course not. But we try to substitute what they don’t get in the wild with something better in captivity, a special relationship with humans.”
Sammut has repeatedly asked his foes to meet with him, to come see the zoo they admonish, but none have taken him up on his offer. “They go out of their way to harass without due cause,” he says. “These extremist activist groups give misinformation through a lack of information. It’s like suggesting you’ve abused your children—you haven’t—and yet you can’t do anything about it. It’s stomach wrenching.”
The 180-animals (60 species in all) are Sammut’s children. He’s hand-raised dozens of them, including Ed the hyena who rode shotgun in Sammut’s truck until instincts kicked in and Ed wanted to eat his dad. Two tiger cubs, who loved their baby bottles and human cuddles back in 2012, are now full-grown big cats. Several animals have colorful backgrounds. The serval, a “small African cat,” was confiscated by the Fish and Game Department. An agent immediately called Sammut, knowing he’d provide the African creature a safe place to live.
“Can’t release those into the wild,” Sammut chuckles. The elephants came from a carnival. Two squirrel monkeys arrived, one from the Playboy Mansion. Animals are rarely purchased or sold but rather traded with other programs for education and conservation.
“To be recognized as a real zoo is a dream come true because now, we have access to animals in other zoos.” Sammut says. “They breed to help populate the species. The strictest guidelines are adhered to so there is no overpopulation. We should be able to reproduce anything so that we never lose any (species) again. That’s the purpose of zoos. We are the insurance for all species now, and if we don’t know how to reproduce something, we need to learn how so that in the event there’s a tragedy in the wild, we have a means to repopulate and never lose another species.”
A bare-bones operating budget—being exercised during the pandemic—means the zoo needs $1,000,000 dollars a year to survive. The elephants, alone, each eat $200 worth of food every day. Feeling the pinch of COVID-related closures, Sammut has been able to secure governmental disaster relief loans. But it was a social media campaign called “Our Little Zoo to You” that’s pleasantly surprised him the most, raising $250,000 in just three months. In generous Monterey County, “anonymous” donors have written checks to create big-cat enclosures and enhance facilities. Other admirers send in what they can, maybe $5 or $10, to ensure that the animals can remain well-cared for. Sammut promises to remain a dedicated steward for the animals and the donations, keeping his eye on his two goals.
“Once the virus passes, we’ll get back to two focal points: kids and conservation,” he says. “We have kids in Monterey County who won’t get to Santa Barbara or San Francisco to see a zoo. I’ve had children on the property who think a lion is a tiger. We will be focusing on our programs for children when things get back to normal.”
Sammut’s other focus is working with other conservation programs from around the world, continuing his work to ensure that all the animals living at the zoo will be in existence as long as there are humans to ooh, ahh, and interact with them.
For more information, go to montereyzoo.org.