In a small town like Atascadero, questions remain unanswered. Everyone seems to know a little about other people’s business, and if they don’t, they can point to someone who does. However, over the years it has become increasingly difficult to find information about the founder of perhaps the most unique and unexpected zoo in Atascadero, the Charles Paddock Zoo.
The library has no books about Mr. Paddock, whose friends call him Chuck, and numerous Google searches with various combinations of keywords yield only reminders of upcoming zoos and various articles about some of the new animal attractions.
Talking with community members who knew Paddock and worked with him, they fondly recall the man whose vision helped Atascadero get his own zoo, and the story behind it.
Paddock worked as a park ranger for San Luis Obispo County Park and was responsible for the lake and the park itself, as well as other parks in the city, including Sunken Gardens and the grass shopping center located under the school grounds around the city government building.
While observing the Atascadero area, Paddock took it upon himself to pick up the animals. In 1955, the county allowed him to move his aviaries from their former location to their current location. Until 1959. Paddock observed more than 125 animals, mostly birds and some mammals.
In 1962, an original version of the zoo was established – the Children’s Zoo Friendship Society, which was inaugurated in 1964. Over the years, particularly during the reign of the paddock, the zoo has housed a large number of exotic animals acquired in various ways.
Paddock took in sick animals and rehabilitated them. It is said that he had to do with a circus that came to town once a year, and that he even once owned a retired chimpanzee that appeared on television.
The most prestigious of his first animals was a pair of African lions named Nathan and Joey Valley, as described in the chapter on the zoo in L.W. Allan Atascadero’s The Vision of One is the Work of Many. While the zoo contained exotic animals, it also had a section devoted to farm animals and a display of its very first animal, a possum named Cosmo Topper.
There are many stories about Paddock, from delivering cubs to families in town to tales of him walking lions and other animals around the lake, so it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from fiction. The sixties were a very different time.
Paddock was a calm, tough and compassionate man who always helped where he could. As a forester, he also played an important role in the Scouts and taught many of the townspeople the basics of comfort and self-sufficiency.
He believed in hard and honest work and regularly hired boys in town to do the necessary manual labor around the parks. A former journalist, Brad Humphrey, is quoted in Allan’s book about working in the Paddock: I didn’t think at the time that this work would forge character, but it did. Many of the young man’s characters were created by Charles Paddock.
Former Atascadero Mayor Tom O’Malley remembers the compass hikes where Paddock dropped off a group of SLO Scouts, gave them only a map and compass and waited for them at Cerro Alto. He also organised boxing evenings, so that the boys could solve their problems under supervision. He was old school somehow.
Paddock has to get creative to feed his exotic animals. Joe Exotica’s version of Atascadero collected road kill like deer or bought old dead horses and crushed them to provide food for the lions. Once he even borrowed a truck to load a stack of frozen turkeys that had been tossed from a processing plant in Bakersfield.
In 1967, the county officially took over the zoo and changed the name to Atascadero Children’s Zoo. It wasn’t until 1977 that the county recognized Paddock’s work and officially renamed it the Charles Paddock Zoo.
Unfortunately, the founder’s story does not have a happy ending. After decades of fighting to keep the zoo open and alive, Paddock resigned after the loss of his son Michael, who recently gave his life fighting for his country in Vietnam. Michael was an NCO in the United States Marine Corps and received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars of Valor for his service and sacrifice. Paddock committed suicide shortly thereafter, in April 1980.
The county relinquished ownership of the zoo in 1979 when Atascadero voters approved its creation, and the zoo has been under the control of the city ever since. Since 1979, the zoo has undergone several improvements and is now accredited by the American Society of Zoos and Aquariums.
On the fourth. In July 2015, the City of Atascadero celebrated the zoo’s 60th anniversary by unveiling a bronze statue of Paddock with his first furry friend, Cosmo Topper, smiling on his shoulder.
Tiger, portrait of a Bengal tiger. A tiger in a zoo.
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We’ll get through this together, Atascadero…
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