The Iron Zoo of Coalinga

Jan 9, 2016 2 comments

Situated 190 miles south of San Jose, California, is the small town of Coalinga — a name derived by losing the middle term from “Coaling Station A” and joining the leftovers. This town of 15,000 is mainly an agricultural community with Chevron and Aera Energy operating the town’s only oil field. To reach Coalinga, you have to get off Interstate 5 and onto Highway 33. As you drive north towards the town, Coalinga’s oil field will come into view. You will see several oil pump jacks busy bobbing up and down doing their job. Now if you look closely, you will see animals — zebras, giraffes and horses— not the usual kind, but pump jacks painted as animals. Each rooted to its own spot, these iron animals merrily raise and lower their heads, as if grazing in the field.


Photo credit: Arlette/Flickr

The Coalinga Iron Zoo was created back in the 70s by Jean Dakessian, a local artist who arrived in Coalinga with her husband and opened a restaurant and inn. She thought that if she decorated some of the pump jacks along the highway north of town, she might successfully lure drivers off the Interstate and into Coalinga and eventually to the doors of her new business. Since oil pump jacks are also referred to as "nodding donkeys" or "thirsty birds", it didn’t take too big of a leap in imagination to arrive at her concept of the Iron Zoo.

Jean approached Shell Oil Company and they allowed her to paint one, which she turned into a large red bird. It received so much attention that, the head office of Shell gave her permission to paint another 23 pump jacks and also provided her the paint. Then Chevron asked her to paint their 34 pump jacks as well, so she ran a contest for designs. Soon the Iron Zoo became a community project.

"Families came out on the weekends, even the mayor and his family painted one. The response to the project was overwhelming,” Jean said.

At its peak, the Iron Zoo had over fifty decorated pump jacks. Jean Dakessian’s Iron Zoo received national recognition from television and newspapers, even featuring on Ripley’s Believe it or Not book.

That was a long time back. Over the decades many of the original derricks were decommissioned and turned to scrap while others were moved further from the road and out of sight. Only a handful of Jean’s iron animals now remain. They are old, faded and rusted.


Photo credit: David Cohen/Flickr


Photo credit: Arlette/Flickr


Photo credit: Arlette/Flickr


Photo credit:


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper


Photo credit: The Shouting Grasshopper

Sources: Offbeat Travel / San Joaquin Valley Geology / Weird CA


  1. Dear Amusing Planet, Thank you very much for all the interesting things you bring us; more than amusing ... informative.

  2. Too bad they aren't there anymore. I was born and raised in coalinga. I tried to get supplies donated (which I did get done) but cheveron , shell, texco, area didn't seem to thrilled about allowing me and another guy to restore and repaint them. Mind you I worked and was currently working in the oil patch at the time and was very well aware on how to properly operate the wells as far as LOTO (lock out tag out) goes and the company I was working for even offered the use of their equipment (4 gas analyzer) for the H2S that is present around oil wells. Shame to see a piece of history brushes away to the way side. I even approached a few higher ups on the food chain and they even said they would supervise the project and they wouldnt ask for pay. They were also willing to donate their time to see these wells restored. But the final answer was NO! Shame


Post a Comment

More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}