Owner Carolyn Franks sells ZOOMARS and takes guinea pig mascot to Hollywood!
I don’t know that I’ve ever uttered the phrase “it all started with a guinea pig.” Certainly, this is the first time I have ever personally written the phrase. But I’m more than tickled by the notion that a whirlwind of events which has started the former owner of ZOOMARS iconic San Juan Capistrano petting zoo down the path of adventure was with, you guessed it: a guinea pig. Not just any guinea pig. Gillie Guinea Pig. Carolyn Franks, couldn’t stop smiling before. Now, I’m betting it would take an incredible feat to curb her enthusiasm.
Former owner, you ask? The success of Carolyn’s first book has opened the door to an unimaginable adventure - one that has been 15 years in the making since she first envisioned an innocent, affordable family entertainment opportunity. A petting zoo named ZOOMARS in the historic Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano resulted, and is the stuff of history now. A “backyard barnyard” from the start, the zoo buildings date back to the 1800’s, and its property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Home to a vast number of creatures and critters alike, the llamas, ponies, goats, sheep, bunnies and of course, guinea pigs will soon be in the caring hands of local developer Dan Almquist whose own children and wife Lindsey are longtime friends and fans of the beloved zoo. And, most importantly, who wish to keep it, enrich it, and bolster its already sterling reputation for years to come.
Almquist will be one of only a handful of owners of the property in two centuries. The land was once part of the Mission, then a Mexican ranch owned by the Rios family, then the Nieblas family (both relatives of the native inhabitants, the Acjachemen), then granted to Delfina Olivares, the town matriarch. In 1980, Gil and Millie Jones bought the parcel and opened the Jones Family Mini Farm. Gil served as a two-term mayor. They sold the property to Carolyn when they retired in 2005.
“Like me,” Carolyn notes, “the original Jones Family would only sell the petting zoo to someone who would promise to keep it a zoo. I believe that after 15 years, I have taken ZOOMARS as far as I can on my own. I see how much Dan Almquist and his company Frontier Development, truly care about historic restoration and preservation in San Juan and they have the investors and the construction know-how to revitalize old buildings. It’s great to showcase these 1800s structures for all to enjoy, but no one realizes the enormous amount of money it takes to preserve and continuously repair them. Dan’s projects in town inspire growth and yet are in keeping with our old town charm. There is no one I trust more than Dan to pass the torch to.”
As a former San Juan Mayor, Gil Jones also supports Dan’s vision for growth in town and his approval was also important to Carolyn. “I wanted to make sure I had Gil and Millie’s blessing before selling and called to ask them for it before I approached Dan. I told them I knew he would keep their ‘farm’ alive and that it would be in good hands. The property was never listed for sale as I only approached Dan privately.”
The property holds four listings on the National Register of Historic Places - the Olivares House, the Owner’s Cottage, the San Juan Springs Bathhouse and River Street, which Dan purchased 50% of when he bought the Ito Nursery next door a few years ago.
“Dan has a proposed project on the nursery site (pending City Council approval on July 2nd), which was another reason I felt he was the ideal person to approach,” says Carolyn. “Should the River Street Marketplace be voted in, the petting zoo would be incorporated into their plan, constructed in a California craftsman design.” The project can be viewed at riverstreetsjc.com.
Carolyn, in the meantime, will be taking Gillie straight to Hollywood. For as it turns out, her literary agent loved Gillie and his friends so much, she suggested an animated series for television, which Carolyn is in the process of writing now. With preliminary interest from a few studios already, due to its uniqueness, the show would be based on many of Carolyn’s real-life stories at ZOOMARS intertwined with an imaginary place called GUINEAPIGVILLE. It would also incorporate two original soundtracks Carolyn produced, “We Are Not Hamsters,” and “Ponies Don’t Surf.”
“I lost everything I owned to keep the zoo afloat after the economic crash in 2008, and a divorce in 2009. Thankfully, a local San Juanian and close friend lent me an inordinate amount of money to keep things going and I struggled for every dollar to pay her back. My bookkeeper would run to the bank at 4:45 to ensure every check would clear. Through years of tough times, using creative ideas to promote business, countless Groupon deals, free pop-up petting zoos, a summer camp, and even a disastrous dino extinction; the stars aligned.” A mom who’d taken her daughter to ZOOMARS had illustrated a kid’s book, and wanted Carolyn to see it. “I couldn’t type fast enough: ‘Can you draw a guinea pig?’” The rest is a 32-page masterpiece. All 5,000 books sold within a few months, Gillie won a prestigious award, and after 15 years, Carolyn feels like passing the ZOOMARS torch is the best possible gift to her community.
Gillie, meanwhile, is getting ready to load into a vintage Airstream Motorhome, which Carolyn always dreamed of owning and recently just purchased, and start doing shows locally. The series, called “Go Gillie Go!” is set to follow Gillie and his friends (the ones he met in the book at Mr. Parker’s Pet Shop) as they do pop-up shows around the country benefiting animals in need. “I can’t tell you all the juicy details about Gillie’s Roadshow, or Sheriff Gillie will arrest me, but I can tell you that his Airstream holds a ‘secret’ that takes him and his friends on some wild rides,” Carolyn says with a smile. “And maybe … we’ll even meet Juan the Dinosaur again.”
“My heart will always be here with my animals. I’m staying on before, during and after the sale to serve as a consultant, cheerleader and guinea-pig petter. It’s in the contract! Dan and I both want the transition to be seamless for our ZOOMARS community. Those familiar staff faces, like Nina, Gerald and Angel the emu, who have been with me from the beginning, will still be here.” And all the allure of ZOOMARS will continue to come with parties, pony rides, bunnies, goats, sheep, bunnies and chickens. And of course, their signature 100 guinea pigs! And to think, it began with one. As Carolyn likes to say “Anything’s possible with love and a carrot stick.”