It will be a mixture of happiness and sadness Friday at the Orange County Zoo. The zoo recently rescued two mountain lion kittens from Thousand Oaks, who will have a new home. But one of the zoos youngest patrons will not be there to see it. Aiden Leos, who was 6, was shot to death in May, 2021 during an apparent road rage incident.
Leos was a frequent visitor to the zoo and was on his way to kindergarten that day with his mother. Authorities say a man and a woman driving a car on the freeway became enraged at the boy’s mother. The man allegedly fatally shot the boy in the chest. The couple were subsequently arrested, have pleaded not guilty to charges against them and are facing trial. Aiden will be honored by a plaque in his memory to be unveiled by Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner.
The new habitat will span about two acres of zoo land and is the biggest single improvement in the zoo’s history. The zoo traces its roots to the early 20th century. It became a modern zoo in the mid-1980’s.
The zoo has rescued the two cougar kittens, who are the subjects of a naming contest, and several other large cats. The zoo will open at 10 a.m. and county officials and staff will be on hand to introduce the public to the cats and demonstrate care given to large cats in zoo settings.
The new inhabitants featured May 13 will be three cougar (AKA mountain lion) kittens an adult cougar and a young jaguar. The adult mountain lion, Santiago, arrived at the zoo as a young orphan in 2011. He was found in Oregon, treated in Rosamond, California and then came to the zoo. The two sisters found in Thousand Oaks will be joined by a young male, Ray. He was hit by a car in Monterey, California, also in November 2021. The zoo treated the two girls for malnutrition and the boy for serious injuries. Car accidents are a major source of injury and death for wildlife in California.
Cheyenne Catli, speaking for the zoo, noted that cougar kittens stay with their mothers for as long as two years. The rescued kittens were so young it was decided they had little chance to survive on their own. The Orange County zoo focuses on animals found in the southwest of the United States, so the cougars are a good fit. Jaguars used to be found in much of the United States and are occasionally found in Arizona. There are efforts to try and reintroduce them to the U.S.
The jaguar is about two years old and comes from a zoo in Arizona. His name is Ziggy and he is melanistic, essentially all black. Their new home includes artificial rock walls, climbing platforms, a waterfall and a bridge for them to walk overhead. It is designed to bring zoo patrons close to the animals and give them as natural an environment as possible. The enclosure can be configured in different ways for inclusion and separation of the inhabitants. Jaguars are the largest wild cat in the Americas. They once were common in the southwest but their range is now highly restricted. A few may cross the border into New Mexico and Arizona. Although less common than the spotted cousins, melanistic jaguars arise frequently and can do well in the wild.
The opening weekend for the habitat will feature a naming contest for the girls and a slew of family oriented activities.
Orange County Third District Supervisor Donald P. Wagner praised the zoo’s contributions to the community and its dedication to spotlighting regional wildlife and rescues. The zoo is located in Irvine Regional Park. It is part of the OC Parks system which manages about 60,000 acres of wild land, open space historical and coastal assets. Wagner has been active in the adoption of the two Thousand Oaks kittens. He will also unveil the plaque to young Aiden.
Although the park opens at 10 the formal ribbon cutting and media event will occur at 9 a.m.
The park is located inside Irvine Regional Park at 1 Irvine Park Road in Orange, 92869.