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Judge Prentice and the Santa Ana Zoo

by Diann Marsh, from Santa Ana, An Illustrated History, (1994 Heritage Publishing. Excerpt used with permission).


"Monkeys make the best pets in the world," Joseph Edward Prentice used to say. He allowed four or five monkeys to run free in his magnificent 16-room mansion at 1660 E. First Street. It has been said that he had a hard time keeping housekeepers because of the antics of the monkeys.


The Burge Mansion, a square three-story Italianate house with a six-sided, two-story turret, was located on the spot where the Saddleback Inn and the Elks Club sit today.


E. D. Burge was a citrus rancher who called his house and groves Melwood Estate. Mr. Burge, a former oil producer from the San Joaquin Valley, purchased the house in 1911 from the Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank for a sum of $40,000. He built a packing house on the property in 1915.


Unfortunately, Mr. Burge lost the house and grounds in November of 1929. It sold to W L. Moore for $125,000. In 1931 "Ed" Prentice bought the property, which included 19.23 acres, after it had been foreclosed upon, for $12,650. The difference in price illustrates the impact of the Depression on the sales price of property in Orange County.


In 1949 Ed Prentice gifted the City of Santa Ana with 16 acres of land for Prentice Park. R Carson Smith, then mayor of Santa Ana and the manager of a title company, remembers the day Prentice walked into his office and proposed the idea of a park for the city, providing it be named Prentice Park He first tried to negotiate an agreement whereby he would give the park 12 acres. He wanted to donate an additional $100,000 for the purpose of buying animals for the zoo, with a condition that his nephew, Jack Crawford, be consulted as to the type of wild animals purchased. The City refused his offer. The Judge still donated the land, but made the stipulation that at least 50 monkeys be on the premises at all times.


On May 19,1949, the City Council gave Ed Prentice a gold key to the city in a ceremony held in council chambers-the second key to the city to have been given by the council.


Dorothy Gastag relates: "Construction of the park was the start of a long series of battles between the strong-minded donor and city councilmen. Prentice, white-thatched, small, wiry and irascible, wearing a faded maroon corduroy jacket and dutching between his teeth the stem of an old porcelain pipe much mended with friction tape, maintained a ubiquitous and disapproving surveillance over the entire operation. He shouted and waved his arms, ordering and countermanding orders, until distraught workmen dreamed of mayhem. Prentice was also an inveterate reporter to the press, and his comments and outcries made him the darling of reporters, especially those from the Santa Ana Independent."


By the time Ed Prentice died, on June 3, 1959 at the age of 81, his zoo was well on the way to becoming a success. The staff was careful to breed only top-quality animals, and often traded the healthy offspring to other zoos for some of the rare species it wanted. In 1966 the zoo received a lot of favorable publicity when a pair of dark gibbons, Amos and Andrea (formally called Andy), gave birth to a rare blond gibbon.

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