They’re found only in San Bernardino County in higher elevations and are so rare, even mountain residents go their entire lives without seeing one. So imagine how exciting it was for Big Bear Alpine Zoo to welcome not one but three tiny San Bernardino County flying squirrels to the facility in 2016!
Two arrived in spring when cell phone tower workers discovered a nest and brought the babies to the zoo, which raised them by hand by bottle-feeding till the squirrels could be weaned and put on solid foods like seeds, nuts, vegetables and fruits. Then a guest brought in another flying squirrel so zoo staff had to the whole process all over again. Since babies are typically born in pairs usually two or four at a time, the odd number meant the zoo had to separate the squirrels till they got older.
Now the rare mammals have their own exhibit at Big Bear Alpine Zoo, which since its founding in 1959 has rescued and rehabilitated countless injured or abandoned animals and birds. Flying squirrels are quite different from gray squirrels and other mammals people see scampering about the forest. Much smaller, they get their name from furred membrane called the patagium that stretches from the wrist to the ankle.
When it’s stretched flat the patagium almost looks like a mini-bat suit that humans soar in, and serves the same purpose, creating aerodynamic lift that slows the rate of descent. Even the tail flattens out! “They can glide the distance between half to a full football field in length,” said Bob Cisneros, curator at Big Bear Alpine Zoo.
Instead of climbing down and crossing from tree to tree, which leaves them vulnerable to their main predator the spotted owl, flying squirrels soar between branches. “You can see how fast they maneuver,” Cisneros said while the three squirrels darted back and forth in their enclosure, warmed by heat lamp.
“Very little is known about the species,” Cisneros said. “They used to be in San Jacinto but since the 1900’s there’s only been two sightings.”
As a result the zoo is in a partnership with several government agencies along with San Diego Natural History Museum to try and determine why flying squirrels are no longer seen in San Jacinto. Granted they’re nocturnal creatures, but in itself that doesn’t explain why they’ve seemingly disappeared.
San Bernardino Mountains are now their primary habitat. In Big Bear flying squirrels are sometimes seen in Moonridge, Sugarloaf, Fawnskin and Boulder Bay communities. Across the mountain range they’ve also been identified in Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs and Angeles Oaks.
San Bernardino Flying Squirrels aren’t the only rare animals guests see at the zoo, one of only two alpine zoos in the country. Endangered Himalayan snow leopards Asha and Shanti are popular residents to see, which came to Big Bear from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Unfortunately the cats have trouble looking back. Both were born with a relatively rare congenital eye anomaly called multiple ocular coloboma and have had their right eyes removed to prevent infection and other complications.
Big Bear’s is also one of only two zoos in California home to the state symbol, the grizzly bear. At one point Big Bear Valley was flush with grizzlies, but by early after the turn of the century all were gone. Grizzlies returned to Big Bear several years ago home when a marauding mother and her two cubs raided camp sites in Yellowstone and faced a death sentence. In a great grassroots fundraising drive bricks were sold to build the three bears a home.
Now the zoo itself is getting a new home. Two decades of searching and planning has finally paid off, as grading has begun on Big Bear Alpine Zoo’s new home in lower Moonridge.
Work is expected to continue through late next year on the 10.4 acre property, located just north of the golf course driving range where Clubview Dr. splits from Moonridge Rd. and heads toward Bear Mountain. The $8.5 million project is expected to be completed at the very end of 2017—the contract awarded to M.S. Construction Management Group based in Dana Point calls for the zoo to be completed in 547 construction days—with an estimated spring 2018 opening date.
Plans were drawn by PGAV Destination Consulting—which designed the mega-Aquarium in Georgia—and the company has been on board through the whole process, tinkering with blueprints even as the size of the project shrank, still incorporating bells and whistles into a six-plus acre park that’s almost triple the size of the current 2.5 acre zoo.
Five marquee exhibits are highlights of the new Alpine Zoo, featuring grizzlies, timberwolves, mountain lions, black bears and snow leopards. Also in the design is a snack bar, ticket and gift shop, additional exhibits and administration building.
In the meantime Big Bear Alpine Zoo is a terrific family outing. Daily animal presentations at noon in the amphitheater allow guests to meet zoo critters up close. Plus there’s animal enrichment programs four times daily.
Big Bear Alpine Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $12, $9 ages 3-10/60 and over, under three free.
The zoo is at 43285 Goldmine Dr. across from Bear Mountain. Call (909) 584-1299.