The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert: The perfect oasis for rocker Debora Iyall

By Michael Mackie

The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, Palm Desert, CA 92260, USA

Iyall enjoys a bit of morning solitude in a shady oasis.

Singer Debora Iyall knows a few things about helping to build things from the ground up. Iyall was the lead singer of the popular New Wave band Romeo Void back in the ‘80’s – a group that started organically and gained mainstream momentum thanks to Iyall’s presence, lyrics and vocal prowess. Thirty years later, Iyall now teaches art in California’s Coachella Valley – so it didn’t come as a big surprise when she picked Palm Desert’s oh-so educational Living Desert Zoo and Gardens as her ultimate fave place. 

“My love of nature and fascination with living things was instilled in me by my mom -- it makes me truly feel at home here,” said Iyall. “I can be curious, learn things and experience a feast for my senses all in one place.”

Established way back in 1970, the grounds and preserve were started literally from scratch. Sure, the terrain and the climate were perfect, but “every bit of flora here has been planted in the last 47 years”, said Mike Chedester, Director of Education at The Living Desert. Now The Living Desert has tasked itself with preserving and conserving plant and animal life from deserts all over the world. “Every plant or animal here is part of a species survival plan,” said Chedester. “We want people to leave here and know they are helping save wildlife from extinction. They’re helping here … and worldwide.  We are a conservation center – on top of being a really cool place to visit.”

A quick scan of the grounds shows just how expansive The Living Desert really is.

A quick scan of the grounds shows just how expansive The Living Desert really is.

Palm Desert, meanwhile, is having some of its hottest temps on record this summer – and that’s saying something for a city that’s known for its Fahrenheit-breaking heat waves. It isn’t fazing any of the plants or animals – they are thriving. “These are extreme desert plants and animals – they survive just fine in this heat,” said Chedester. “We do have a few geriatric animals – who get swamp coolers, misters, and shady places to lounge around.” Locals, however, know the drill. Many residents get annual memberships “to gain access to The Living Desert an hour before the public does -- in the cool morning hours,” said Iyall.

Iyall knows -- and Mackie quickly learned -- the early bird beats the heat.

Iyall knows -- and Mackie quickly learned -- the early bird beats the heat.

Iyall, meanwhile, put her love of teaching to good use. She forged a friendship with Chedester when he recruited her to work at The Living Desert’s summer camp for kids, Gecko Explorers. It was a labor of love. A whopping 420,000 visitors came through the gates last year – 30,000 of whom were students involved with the Desert’s ever-evolving educational programs. 

Iyall and Chedester take a tour of the grounds to see some of the new exhibits

The Living Desert is also privy to big kids who want to learn a thing or two. “Bring a sketchbook or even a small notepad and really notice your surroundings by drawing them,” said Iyall, who has a flair for creating artwork herself. “There are benches throughout the park and many vistas and gardens worth a long, studied look. Plus, the birds, insects, reptiles and mammals are gorgeous and deserve your attention.”

Every stop along the way spotlights the beauty of flora on display at The Living Desert.

Slowly but surely, The Living Desert has become just as well known for their on-site vet clinic and animal preserve which is home to many endangered species -- one of which is the Mexican Wolf. “There are only 100 in existence left in the wild and 250 in captivity,” mentioned Chedester. “Every single thing here has a conservation story behind it. There’s one single scientist to manage each animal on the species survival plan to ensure genetic diversity and species sustainability.”

Many varieties of plants that were once prolific on their home turf in Australia or Africa are getting a fresh-breath of carbon dioxide … er, air at The Living Desert. The same goes for the abundance of animals allowed to roam the expansive, manicured grounds. Think of it as a home away from home for 500+ different animals. On Chedester’s wish list to add to the zoo? “Rhinos and African lions are all part of our master plan.” 

Visitors are quick to learn the heart and soul of The Living Desert are the stalwart volunteers who help run the show. “There are over 500 volunteers here who are dedicated and integral to the facility,” said Iyall. “They help tell the stories. They speak for the trees because the trees have no tongues.”

Feeding time for the giraffes.

From the giraffe feedings to a visit to the Ant Lab to a ride on the carousel, there’s so much to experience at The Living Desert. Have a limited amount of time, but want to maximize your visit? The Living Desert offers up private safaris or even behind-the-scenes tours for guests of all ages. Iyall is quick to point out that it’s the perfect venue for tourists. “Local friends and acquaintances make it a habit to bring out of town guests here,” said Iyall. “It is a wonderful way to experience the desert for the novice.”

The Ocotillo plant doesn't know what boundary issues are. It flourishes in the desert sun.

The Ocotillo plant doesn't know what boundary issues are. It flourishes in the desert sun.

When she’s not busy teaching the art of creating art to her young students, Iyall still keeps in touch with her fans via social media. And if you’re longing for some old-school new wave, Iyall and her Bay Area group DIG (Debora Iyall Group) can be found playing up and down the California coast. “DIG has learned songs from both my solo albums and Romeo Void so my set is a mix of both. We are definitely known as a good live band. My players are a great unit and we're all doing it because we enjoy playing together.” 

Kids Gecko Explorers at The Living Desert.

Kids Gecko Explorers at The Living Desert.

For Iyall, her legacy lives on at The Living Desert. “Debora started the Gecko Explorer program -- which has continued to grow since she started it,” said Chedester. “It was her brainchild. She helped engaged the kids in preservation and conversation … and had a great time doing it.” 

Like we mentioned, Iyall knows a few things about building things from the ground up … and then some.  

Details and Admission:

The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, 47900 Portola Ave, Palm Desert, CA 92260, USA.