Walk On The Wild Side
These are fun and exciting times for the newly accredited Honolulu Zoo and its proud director Linda Santos, who’s been a guiding force for the city-run operation since the 1980s.
Linda Santos’ appointment to Honolulu Zoo director has been decades in the making. After first setting foot on the property back in 1986, she was hired as a laborer at the zoo’s commissary. Her specific job? Shaping diets and preparing meals for the animals.
“It was overwhelming what the carnivores would get,” recalls Santos. “At the time when I started, we didn’t have a lot of prepared animal feed like they sell now. Back then, we had to make the diets from scratch.”
This included cutting up butchered meat and weighing it out for each creature.
“It was so interesting to see how much each animal got,” she continues. “Finding out how much food an elephant eats in a day is really surprising.”
From the commissary, Santos worked her way up to residential animal keeper trainee and animal keeper I and II, and oversaw everything from elephants to hoof-stock and primates.
“I’ve literally worked in almost every animal position possible,” says Santos, who also served as the zoo’s bird curator, general curator and assistant director.
Those experiences left her well-equipped to lead the zoo into its next phase of growth. As the organization’s first female director, Santos has been hard at work these past three years, and the effort she and her staff have put forth in that time haven’t gone unnoticed.
This past April, Honolulu Zoo earned its accreditation from Association of Zoos and Aquariums after years of trying. The designation means the city’s menagerie met strict guidelines relating to animal welfare, education, safety and conservation — and is evidence that the zoo is moving in the right direction.
“This is a big thing,” Santos states. “We are accredited! We are sorry it happened during lockdown, but it was a little boost to know what we accomplished.”
Winning back its accreditation isn’t the only bright spot during those COVID months, either. Honolulu Zoo also welcomed two young giraffes — Sandi and Neelix — to their new homes in Waikīkī back in May. (They’re now living with 20-year-old Squirt, the zoo’s resident long-necked beauty.) It also moved the spider monkeys to their new and improved habitat on the premises, and welcomed baby lemurs who were born on Easter Sunday.
“During the lockdown for COVID, the zoo stayed busy,” Santos assures.
Her role in working with animals comes as no surprise to those who know her best. Growing up on O‘ahu, Santos had nearly every pet imaginable from dogs and cats to rabbits and birds, as well as lesser-kept animal kingdom friends like anoles, turtles and mice. Right now, though, Santos just has her big brown-and-orange tabby Johnny as her furry companion, but that’s because she has a whole host of animals from around the world to take care of.
“I enjoy coming out into the zoo grounds and looking at the animals,” she says. “I also get excited watching our staff grow in their positions. I’ve been working with them for many years, watching them with all the success they’re getting from hatching croc monitor lizard eggs to bringing in the giraffes safely and getting them acclimated.”
Currently, Honolulu Zoo is operating with modified hours — 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, with the park closing at 3:30 p.m. — but call 971-7171 or check out honoluluzoo.org for all updates.
“We ask people to come visit and enjoy,” Santos adds. “This is one of the places that people can still come outdoors and get to do some activities for the kids. We can’t do a lot of gatherings and keeper talks, but there’s still a lot happening with animal enrichment and feedings.”
And, she notes, locals get a discount on zoo admission.
“We’re really happy to get support from kama‘āina,” she concludes. “We’d like to thank everyone for supporting the zoo and coming out. We really appreciate them.”
Some educational activities at Honolulu Zoo are on hold for now, but there are still ways to enjoy all the park has to offer in a virtual setting. Schools can take part in Honolulu Zoo’s ZOOm-to-You online sessions, which run about an hour long on video communication platform Zoom.
Visit honoluluzoo.org and click “education programs” to learn what’s available and for more details.