Photo by Sophia Escudero / Construction continues on the plank house within what will become the bear and coyote exhibit at Sequoia Park Zoo

Prepare for bears

The Sequoia Park Zoo asks guests to bear with them as they ready a new exhibit for a late 2022 opening
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by Sophia Escudero

Nestled in the redwood forest, the Sequoia Park Zoo is a Humboldt County staple. The zoo opened in 1907 and evolved with the times to become one of the smallest Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos in the nation. The zoo’s next exhibit is set to open in November of this year, with the addition of American black bears and coyotes. The bears will be placed in the enclosure first, with coyote cohabitation expected to occur in early 2023 once the bears have gotten settled. 

Zoo Activities Coordinator Kate Baldwin is excited about the opening, which will be the first major addition to the zoo since the construction of the Redwood Skywalk was completed in 2021. 

“This is actually going to be a truly state of the art habitat,” Baldwin said. “We increased our footprint by a whole acre to accommodate the Redwood Skywalk and then the addition of bear and coyote, so the Sequoia Park Zoo went from five acres to six.”

The exhibit will be thematically connected with the nearby river otter exhibit and raptor aviary as a display of local wildlife.

“It was always the intent to expand our native animals and specifically our native predators,” Baldwin said.

The exhibit is going to feature two major areas that can be divided or open, night houses for the bears and coyotes, a naturally filtered waterfall feature, and an observation platform around the perimeter. According to Zoo Director Jim Campbell-Spickler, a Humboldt graduate and former university researcher, the exhibit is designed to provide a naturalistic habitat for the animals as well as offering regular enrichment. 

“I’ve never seen a bear exhibit habitat like this,” Campbell-Spickler said. “This is just one of a kind.”

Campbell-Spickler, as a wildlife biologist, has done extensive work with animals and plant life in the local area. Despite the common public perception of zoos as 1980s-style barred cages and animals ripped from the wilderness, an AZA-accredited facility such as the Sequoia Park Zoo has much more in common with an animal sanctuary than that outdated image. 

Photo by Sophia Escudero | Zoo director Jim Campbell-Spickler stands in the future bear and coyote exhibit, showing off the walkway in progress.

“We don’t go to the wild and just take bears, we adopt bears that need a home, bears that are unreleasable, and we are working with the California Fish and Wildlife [Department],” Campbell-Spickler said.

The bears and coyotes will be supplied by the state, and will most likely be orphaned animals, animals that have grown too accustomed to humans, or animals with injuries that would impede their ability to survive in the wild. Many other animals at Sequoia Park Zoo, including Winky the spotted owl, Sequoia and Huckleberry the raccoons, and Cheyenne and Juno the bald eagles, are also rescues that could not be safely released. 

One unique local touch to the exhibit will be due to the zoo’s partnership with the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, a local tribe. The Band has been working closely with the zoo on the project since its inception.

“It’s been an amazing collaboration. We’re currently working with them to construct a plank house, which is a traditional build for native folks of our area, and they are also the major funder,” Campbell-Spickler said. “It was their money, they have a very close tie to bear and coyote. They’re going to help us interpret that Native American relationship with these two animals that have been very important in their culture and it’s been a great partnership.” 

Ironically, the plank house will be modified from the traditional design, which served the express purpose of keeping out bears. It will serve as a training and viewing area. 

“Sequoia Park Zoo is a modern zoo,” Campbell-Spickler said. “We exhibit our animals on a mission of conservation and education. That’s a very important thing for us: an opportunity for us to share these wonderful creatures with the world.”

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