Even at 16 acres, San Jose’s Happy Hollow Park & Zoo could be considered a hidden gem, tucked as it is behind a gateway along Story Road. First conceived in the mid-1950s, the attraction opened in March 1961, with the zoo added in 1967. Many expansions and upgrades have taken place in the years since.
Today, Happy Hollow is partly devoted to gentle rides and amusements for children and partly devoted to the survival of global species, from the adorable (meerkats) to the slightly intimidating (jaguar). About 130 animals representing over 50 species call this home.
We took our zoo cues from the youngest animal lovers on a recent visit. Here’s our guide:
1 Squawk with the macaws: Many of Happy Hollow’s inhabitants reside quietly in their habitats. Not the macaws. Their piercing cries make them wildly popular with kids, who can’t help joining the chorus. Add the vibrant feathers, and the birds become an irresistible draw. Two-year-old Zaiden of Morgan Hill was transfixed first by the blue-and-gold macaws, named Barney and Sarg, until the scarlet macaw, Rooster, let out a cry. Then the blue and gold again, then the scarlet, like cheerleaders on opposing teams.
By the way, Rooster came by that curious name because he was confiscated from a person trying to import parrots into the country illegally. He was being transported in a box labeled “chickens.”
2 Go ‘awwww’ over the capybaras. How is it we are horrified by the sight of a mouse or rat, yet find ourselves enamored with the largest rodent of them all, the capybara? Must be the fact that these Happy Hollow gals are related to the guinea pig, making them cute in a not-so-classically-cute way. If you have small children along, you may have to point out the capybaras — two females named Wendy and Boo — because they’re the size and color of boulders and like to hang out behind said boulders in their habitat. Note the webbed feet, making them what animal experts call “semi-aquatic.” Zoo manager Amber Rindy says they can stay underwater for up to five minutes.
3 Pay a visit to the elders — and the newborns: The African spurred tortoise, Kengele, who will turn 57 this summer, is the oldest resident of Happy Hollow. But he’s not the inhabitant who’s been here the longest — that distinction belongs to Barney the macaw, who has resided here since 1982. As for the newbies, two baby red-ruffed lemurs were born in May and should be scampering around their habitat by now, to the delight of visitors.
4 Venture to anteater territory: The Coran kids — Emma, 9, and Oliver, 6 — highly recommend a trip to the far corner of the park to see one of the anteaters, Xander. “He’s a little show-off,” the knowledgeable Emma says, with her brother nodding in agreement. Even when it gets hot and most of the animals are “over it” for the day, she says, he’s still active. “He paces, and he comes up really close to people.” The San Jose children and their parents, Kimberly and Chris Coran, are Happy Hollow veterans. Mom, in fact, grew up visiting the park.
5 Gawk at the turkey vultures: Can it be that young boys are born knowing how to recognize a vulture? At Happy Hollow, they flock to this habitat. If they’re savvy enough to know about the, ahem, diet of your basic turkey vulture, then it occurs to them to raise concerns about the safety of nearby creatures, like the sweet parma wallaby in the next enclosure. Not to worry, says Caitlin O’Hara, the zoo’s conservation and communications manager. Live wallabies are perfectly safe; plus, these vultures came here as wing injury patients. They’re all better now, but their high-flying days are behind them.
6 Get a glimpse of a red panda: You need to be determined to see Will Smith or Xena — they alternate between the main yard and the behind-the-scenes yard — but their cute faces are worth it. These animals come from the Himalayas in Nepal and China, so they are acclimated to cold weather. “During the summer in San Jose, they need air conditioning,” O’Hara says. “The window on the night house allows zoo guests to still be able to view the panda, while allowing the panda a comfortable, climate-controlled atmosphere.”
7 Go on a safari: This zoo isn’t just for the young. Happy Hollow welcomes the young at heart several times a year at its Senior Safaris. For attendees 50 and over, the event offers early entry into the park on a Thursday morning, chats with zookeepers and special meet-and-greets with the zoo denizens. Admission and parking are free for attendees, who are welcome to spend the whole day relaxing at the park. Upcoming dates for this year are July 27, Aug. 24, Sept. 28 and Oct. 26.
8 Finish with a culinary adventure: Just east of the park sits San Jose’s restaurant-rich Little Saigon district, and it would be a shame not to indulge while here in the neighborhood. For starters, you’re going to want an icy Vietnamese coffee after leaving the park on a hot afternoon. Then go casual with a banh mi or bowl of pho or head to the Vietnam Town center for a sit-down dinner of dishes like shaken beef, tamarind prawns and lemongrass chicken with cocktails and wine.
Details: Happy Hollow is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends through November. Admission is $18 for ages 2-59 and $15 for seniors. Your $10 parking fee can be used for a discount on a family membership. Note: Make sure to bring strollers for your little ones. This is a massive park, and you’ll walk on a bridge over Coyote Creek and two roads just to get from the parking lot to the ticket booth. 748 Story Road, San Jose; https://happyhollow.org.
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