When Santa Clarita Valley residents decide to have a “zoo day,” many think they have to drive up to Santa Barbara or down to L.A. But what they may be forgetting is that Santa Clarita has a zoo of its own.
The William S. Hart Park in Newhall is home to 60-70 animals, taken care of year round under the watchful eye of Rachael Komulainen, who is one of only two animal keepers in the L.A. County Parks & Recreation system.
“We have an amazing assortment of animals and it’s free,” Komulainen says. “It’s a great resource for people to come and get their animal fix.”
For more than five years Komulainen has worked at Hart Park, which originally belonged to silent film actor William S. Hart. When Hart died, he left the property to the public in his will, with the condition that there would always be animals living on his land, the animal keeper says. Hart’s horse, Fritz, is buried there, as well as about 10 of the actor’s dogs.
“Our animals live out their natural lives here,” Komulainen says. “We do have a lot of geriatric animals, including two horses. One is over 40 years old and our other horse is 30.”
Hart Park has a 22-year-old goose, as well, plus a lot of animals not associated with a barnyard, including bison, alpacas and a mule deer.
“Our animals live long, healthy lives, because they’re family members and we treat them as such,” Komulainen explains. “I tell my employees, ‘These are your children. Think of it as a daycare. Make sure their needs are all met and they’re safe.’”
The animals allowed to move onto the property are rescues, and they can only add to their numbers when space is available. Most recently, when one of the park’s two pot-bellied pigs passed away, it opened up space for two young pigs, which just moved in. “We’re hoping to harness train them to be educational,” Komulainen says, adding that her agency partners with individuals and organizations that rescue animals from shelters.
A couple of years ago, a United States veteran who was in poor health had a heart attack and could no longer take care of his ducks and chickens. They were re-homed to Hart Park, joining the other animals, which are typically barnyard breeds, but there have been exceptions.
One of Hart Park’s best known attractions is a herd of 10 bison on the property. Nine of them are descendants of Walt Disney’s original herd, which he donated to Hart Park in 1962.
A 5 ½-year-old mule deer named “Deer Abby” lives in the Hart Zoo. “She was raised by a family, which is illegal and wrong,” Komulainen says. “She’s imprinted, which means non-releasable,” the animal keeper explains. Many get destroyed because there aren’t places for them to go. We were fortunate we could take her. We got her at 6 months old from a rehab facility.”
She adds that there are only a few options to avoid euthanization of these kinds of animals.
“Rehab can either fix whatever the issue is and they can release it to the wild,” she says, “or it can’t be rehabilitated and so it becomes an educational animal.”
More than a year ago, Hart Park lost one of its superstars – Norman the Steer, which succumbed to cancer and arthritis. The space in the park went to five alpaca girls, Komulainen says.
“They are awesome and they are superstars,” she says. “They go out on leads and halters and walk around the park.”
Komulainen also obtained two sulcata tortoises, which can grow to the size of truck tires. The third largest tortoise in the world, these African sulcatas can live up to 150 years old.
“I’m all about education,” Komulainen says. “I have a background with education and rescue. Animals get displaced and get euthanized. I want the animals to win.”
The Hart Park Barnyard is open from 9-4 every day except Christmas Day. On weekends, when the gift shop is open, visitors may purchase pellets to feed the animals. There are also pellet dispensers in the barnyard and you can feed all of the animals except those in three pens where animals with diet restrictions are housed.
The Hart Park Zoo takes part in special events planned by the Friends of Hart Park, and Komulainen and her team offer free pre-scheduled group tours. Call the office for scheduling: 661-259-1750.
For more information about Hart Park, visit FriendsofHartPark.org.