The Living Desert
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The Living Desert was established in 1970 by several trustees of the Palm Springs Desert Museum who foresaw the impact that resort development would have on their local desert ecosystem. This foresight led to an interpretive nature trail and preserve in Palm Desert. Among the trustees was Philip L. Boyd who also founded the Riverside campus of the University of California and the Deep Canyon Research Station in Palm Desert. Among his first tasks was to hire a resident naturalist. This person turned out to be a young woman with energy, intelligence and ambition, as well as experience as a zoo keeper and park ranger, plus graduate work in wildlife biology.

Karen Sausman was President and CEO of The Living Desert for forty years and has recently retired. The vision that built The Living Desert and the love of the desert shared by Phillip Boyd, Karen Sausman, our members, volunteers, staff, trustees, and friends, will be carried forward by our new President and CEO, Allen Monroe.

PrintBrief snippet from multi-hour interview.

For almost four decades The Living Desert has been engaged in the important work of preserving, conserving and interpreting the desert and all its varied plant and animal life. Even as we take immense pride in our accomplishments over the last forty years, we remain as dedicated as ever to the goals that initially inspired us when we first began operations in March of 1970.

Since then we have achieved many critical goals.

  • We established an organization with a strong governing body and support from the community.
  • Expanded the grounds from 360 acres to 1,200 acres. 1,000 acres remain in their natural state.
  • In 1972 an administration building and a gift shop/theater were dedicated. We received our first animal, a kit fox, and initiated the first evening programs and summer field trips for students. With the help of the Boy Scouts, three miles of nature trails were cleared and a trail guide was published.
  • 1973 marked the construction of trailside exhibits and the refinement of the nature system and trail guide. A desert oasis was created, along with a bighorn sheep enclosure and small animal exhibits featuring burrowing owls, lizards and tortoises.
  • During the next six years an admissions building and a small mammal/reptile building were added. A series of gardens depicting desert regions of North America were constructed, and a plant nursery, a propagation center and aviaries were built.
  • A walk-through aviary for native bird species was completed in 1979, with a surrounding oasis including a Desert Pupfish pond and a stand of native California fan palms. An animal care center was completed for the growing animal collection as well as injured and orphaned native species.
  • Throughout the 1970s we continued to expand education programs, art classes, lectures and field trips.
  • By 1980, we employed twelve full time staff. During this decade we continued the expansion of animal exhibits and gardens, plus more activities and special events, bringing more visitors and new members. A community recycling center was started.
  • In 1980 the Board of Trustees appointed a long-range planning committee charged with studying facilities, programs, projects and funds necessary to our successful future.
  • In 1981-82 conservation and preservation projects for endangered species were expanded. The Living Desert began its first international involvement in the effort to save threatened and endangered species by accepting five slender-horned gazelles from the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
  • The Living Desert achieved accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1983.
  • During the 1980s we saw record attendance and increased membership. Conservation projects in both Garden and Animal departments and strong media exposure were notable. We expanded our participation in the AZA’s SSP programs, and participated in the reintroduction of peninsular bighorn sheep to our local mountains, as well as returning Arabian Oryx to Oman.
  • As a result of the long-range planning committee’s efforts, a Master Plan through the year 2000 was initiated in 1986.
  • A new Education Center was completed in 1988, allowing for expansion of educational programming both on and off site. The new Discovery Room allowed parents and children an opportunity to explore the natural world in an interactive way.
  • The Living Desert was accepted in 1989 as a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
  • During the 1989-90 season $2.5 million was raised for a proposed Eagle Canyon exhibit. Our operating budget exceeded one million dollars for the first time. The endangered Grevy’s Zebra exhibit opened and the first Earth Day celebration was held, which become an annual event.
  • In 1990-91 we began the Eagle Canyon project, our largest capital project at that time. We also began planting the new East African garden, and started planning for a new admissions kiosk.
  • During 1991-92 we began construction of the Palms of the World garden. Staff increased to 50, and new administrative offices were located to temporary modular buildings. The Living Desert was host to an international conference on desert antelope.
  • 1992-93 was a year of record attendance as Eagle Canyon opened, home to mountain lions, Mexican wolves, javelinas, bobcats, badgers and many birds. More than 90,000 guests visited during the opening three months of this exhibit.
  • Significant highlights of the 1993-94 season were the opening of a new Meerkat Cafe, and the launch of an annual holiday light show. The operating budget exceeded $2 million, and an animal enrichment program was developed.
  • 1994-95 marked the 25th anniversary of The Living Desert. We opened addax, cinereous vulture and Waldraap ibis exhibits.
  • During 1996 we completed a wildlife programs compound and amphitheater for a twice-daily Wild Wonders show as well as our cheetah exhibit.
  • In 1996-97 plans were continued for development during the next quarter century. A six-year strategic plan of growth was developed along with a major effort to expand the endowment fund. The warthog exhibit opened.
  • 1997-98 was a year of record attendance. The Demonstration Garden was completed.
  • During 1998-99 we opened the Village WaTuTu which included a new cafe, gift shop, special events structure and new animal exhibits including striped hyenas, weaverbirds, camels, ankole cows, sheep and goats. We had the first successful births of Grevy’s zebra.
  • Ground was broken for a new veterinary hospital in 1999 and was completed in 2002.
  • A savanna exhibit housing reticulated giraffe and ostrich was completed in the fall of 2002.
  • Gecko Gulch, a children’s play park and surrounding picnic area opened in November of 2003.
  • A butterfly pavilion opened in the fall of 2005, and hummingbirds were added in the fall of 2008.
  • A new master plan was approved by the Board of Trustees in 2006.
  • In the summer of 2007 the orientation room at Eagle Canyon was renovated for our new exhibit, Amazing Amphibians: Frogs on the Edge! which opened in the fall of 2007. This exhibit was dedicated to raising the public’s awareness about the endangerment of the world’s amphibians.
  • A new administration building, which includes an exquisite collection of California Landscape Paintings, was completed in the spring of 2008.
  • An endangered species carousel was installed and completed in the fall of 2009.
  • In the fall of 2010, we opened an exhibit for the fastest and one of the most endangered animals in North America, the Peninsular pronghorn.
  • We also opened an interactive discovery center where visitors of all ages can discover, understand, and learn about the Coachella Valley region.
  • Camel rides were added to our daily programming and our jaguar exhibit opened in spring of 2011.
  • Fundraising continues for a number of dynamic exhibits, including Lion Ridge.
  • Animal enthusiasts now have a chance interact with hundreds of Australian birds at the Birds of the Australian Outback exhibit, opened January 2014. The seasonal exhibit was sponsored by the City of Palm Desert and was presented by Dal Weber and Kelly Carmien.
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