Giant Anteater
Making a splash at the Santa Ana Zoo, the female giant anteater relaxes in her enclosure's pond. She and her mate — named Peter after UCI's mascot — debuted recently at the zoo's new Tierra de las Pampas exhibit. Kerrin Piche Serna / University Communications

Fear the snout? Better fear those claws. Two giant anteaters — wild cousins to UC Irvine’s famed mascot, Peter — made their debut April 17 at the Santa Ana Zoo, impressing visitors with their long, sticky tongues and bearlike paws.

“As an alumnus, this is my proudest moment — to have our mascot here in Orange County,” says Kent Yamaguchi ’83 and ’84, zoo director and a UCI Alumni Association vice president, who earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and applied ecology.

Transported from Guyana at a cost of $20,000 each, the anteaters spent a year adjusting to their new home before going on public display at the opening of the zoo’s $1.1 million Tierra de las Pampas grasslands habitat.

The 2.5-acre exhibit also features large flightless birds known as greater rheas and llamalike guanacos, but to UCI fans the real stars are Peter, the fluffy-tailed male anteater who tips the scales at nearly 150 pounds, and his mate — temporarily nicknamed Onion — who weighs half as much but has 10 times the energy. (Other anteater species are smaller, with skinnier, prehensile tails that allow them to live in trees.)

“With those long faces and fanned tails, they’re oddly cute,” says Yamaguchi, beaming at the pair like a proud parent.

If you think giant anteaters are fuzzy, cuddly creatures, you’ve been loitering too long in the UCI Bookstore, where their plush likeness is a popular seller. For starters, the real animals’ fur feels like a wire bristle brush — and that’s just one reason you don’t want to pet them.

“Anteaters’ front limbs are strong enough to pry open bark, to get to termites, and they have long claws,” Yamaguchi says. “You have to treat them with respect.”

Shuffling around their enclosures, the anteaters can look as docile as the family dog. They walk on their knuckles, their claws curled into fists, and follow their snout, sniffing the terrain for — you guessed it — ants, as well as termites and other edibles.

“We couldn’t possibly provide a diet of thousands of insects each day,” says Suzanne Merner, zoo curator. Instead, “anteater smoothies” are concocted of cat food, spinach, papaya, bananas and other healthful ingredients. The animals lap up the mixture with their snakelike tongues.

As Merner and other handlers have gotten to know the pair, they’ve noticed each has a distinct personality.

Peter’s reserved. He likes to hang out in his man cave, coming out to perform just one task at a time — eating, sniffing a shrub or hugging a tree — before returning to his private quarters. The female is the playful one, cavorting about her enclosure for hours, poking her snout into anthills, rolling around in a tunnel and enjoying long baths in the pond.

“She loves exploring every inch of her environment. It’s like she’s at Disneyland,” Merner says. “He’s more serious. He likes to survey his domain, then head back to his sanctuary.”

The 6-year-olds live in separate enclosures but can interact through a fence and take turns in the large play area. Occasionally they engage in minor squabbling, but that’s to be expected when anteaters are introduced. They’re solitary creatures, Merner says. Some flirting also has been observed; the two have eyed each other with curiosity and, in a sign of romantic interest, they’ve marked their territory with their scent.

“At the moment, she rules the exhibit,” Merner says. “But he makes his presence known by leaving his calling card.” Zoo personnel hope their initial shyness will give way to affection and someday lead to little anteaters.

While not endangered, giant anteaters are a threatened species. Peter and his mate are among only about 100 in captivity in North America. The Santa Ana Zoo, which focuses on South American animals, first considered adopting a pair in 2006.

“We were looking at building a grasslands exhibit and, lo and behold, that’s the habitat of a giant anteater,” Yamaguchi says. “It suited our master plan, and it was a great opportunity to tie into UCI.”

California Assemblyman Jose Solorio ’92, former UCI Alumni Association President Jenny Doh ’91 and other alumni campaigned for the critters, raising $20,000 for naming rights to the male.

“So many alumni live in Orange County, and many of us have young children,” Yamaguchi says. “Bringing the giant anteaters here was a perfect fit.”