Santa to visit Akron Zoo

Akron Zoo hosts Santa, other notable events

by Marie Pompili Photos Special to Hudson Monthly Published:

The mouse may not have been stirring, but did anyone check the Komodo dragons at the Akron Zoo?

Draco, Charlie, and TNT, all Komodo dragons, are definitely stirring and have invited a special guest from the North Pole for breakfast at their new digs in the Komodo Kingdom Dec. 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22. After a buffet breakfast, children will be able to meet with Santa Claus and visit several craft and cookie decorating stations before watching the Komodo dragons and their fellow Kingdom housemates open their presents -- animal enrichment items such as Little Tikes plastic toys and dog and cat toys wrapped in easy-to-open packages -- from the big guy. Breakfast with Santa and the Animals is just one of the ways the Akron Zoo is reaching out to the community, engaging visitors in conversation and enriching those experiences with more than 700 animals from around the world.

In fact, representatives from the Akron Zoo listened to the people, made good on a promise and spread goodwill throughout the region by focusing on what its visitors wanted. As a result, the zoo enjoyed its most successful season yet.

Grizzly Ridge

Take Grizzly Ridge, for example. On July 24, the Akron Zoo beat its all-time one-day attendance record by welcoming more than 6,300 people through its gates, far surpassing its previous record of 5,714 set in 1957 when the chimpanzee Joe CoCo rode into town in a convertible. According to David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services at the zoo, more than 50 percent of the zoo's increased attendance between July and press time has been after the new four-acre Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge exhibit opened on July 20.

Named in honor of former chairman of the board and current member of the Board of the Akron Zoo, Mike Stark and his wife, Mary, a friend of the zoo, Grizzly Ridge is the result of an outreach effort that not only engaged the interest of zoo visitors but gave them exactly what they asked for. The $12.8 million exhibit was funded through levy proceeds along with the generous support of many private donors.

"We asked the community what they would like to see at their zoo," Barnhardt says. "They wanted to see animals that either are or were indigenous to the region. Grizzly Ridge is the result of listening and following through on our promise."

In keeping with the zoo's commitment to allow visitors to become fully immersed in their environment, Grizzly Ridge features a walk-in aviary with an elevated bridge walk filled with 65 birds native to Ohio; a bald-eagle visit with five stunning eagles (Unity, Wayne, Lakota, Petry, and Spirit), including two juveniles; red wolves named after "The Hunger Games" characters Rue and Katniss, and, eventually, coyotes (at press time, the coyotes were still newborn and could not be shown); playful river otters and, of course, the grizzlies, Jackson and Cheyenne. The young grizzly bears were orphaned in Wyoming around the time the zoo "put out a call" to wildlife organizations indicating they were searching for grizzly bears to live in a new exhibit. When Jackson and Cheyenne made the trek to their new home state they took up residence temporarily at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo until their new home was complete.

Sometimes visitors will catch the training doors open and can watch trainers work with Cheyenne and Jackson. They are teaching them how to live in their new environment, including sharing their home with thousands of people each week. In addition, kids -- and a few daring adults -- can climb into an acrylic tube plunged into the 30,000-gallon river otter pool and watch the otters Emme, Molly and Porthos swim around them, eye to eye. Barnhardt, who has entered the tube himself, notes that the lines are long but move pretty quickly. "These unique experiences keep people coming back," he says.

Grizzly Ridge is located on a hillside, right on the historic Portage Path. For history buffs, the trail connected the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers and was used by Native Americans to transport their canoes from one river to the other. The Akron Zoo has placed a bronze arrowhead marker in Grizzly Ridge to identify the path. A children's dig site will be added where they can dig for real artifacts -- but they can't keep them.

A commitment

The Akron Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a group of 200 zoos and aquariums dedicated to wildlife conservation.

"There are 2,000 animal holding centers in the United States," says Barnhardt, "but only 200 are accredited. Our membership enables us to do a lot as far as participating in species survival plans," Barnhardt says. The red wolves who inhabit Grizzy Ridge are part of a species survival plan; native to the Southwest region of the U.S., the wolves are becoming in danger of extinction. "The gates are open but here is the other piece: responsibility," explains Barnhardt. "We have a responsibility to make sure the animals don't become extinct."

The Akron Zoo participates in about 60 species survival plans (SSP), a significant number for a zoo its size. One of the most visible examples of this is its involvement with the snow leopard conservation organizations. Visitors to the Akron Zoo can get up close and personal with its snow leopards, which were paired genetically prior to arriving at their new home. "Last spring we had a successful birth -- our cubs made up two out of seven total snow leopard births in the U.S.," Barnhardt says. According to the World Conservation Union, it is estimated that there are only 3,500 to 7,000 of the cats living in the wild.

The Humboldt Penguin Species SSP is another conservation effort embraced by the zoo. Visitors to Penguin Point, which opened in the Komodo Kingdom in 2003, have enjoyed watching the antics of the Point's 21 residents, 13 of which were born on-site. In June, the Zoo welcomed two chicks, Bisnieto and Regalo. Humboldt penguins born in the wild are commonly found in the warmer climates of Peru and Chile where they have become endangered due to the commercial harvesting of guano for agricultural fertilizer. Because they are quickly losing their nesting habitat, these penguins are estimated (by some groups) to be extinct in the wild in the next 10 years.

Draco, Charlie and TNT, the Komodo Dragons are also part of an endangered species group. In the wild, Komodo Dragons, native to Indonesia's Flores, Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, and Padar Islands are now totally extinct on Padar Island, according to the Padar Island Komodo National Park Center. About 2,500 are estimated to be living in the wild.

A steward of the gifts of mother earth

The Akron Zoo is committed to the care and conservation of all sorts of animal species as well as the earth on which they live. The Zoo's green team is committed to recycling, reclaiming and reusing any and all materials available when building, renovating and operating its exhibits. In addition to the Bear Ruins (replaced by Grizzly Ridge), the Barnhardt Family Welcome Center, and the Grasslands Café, the Zoo has forged ahead with some pretty innovative green initiatives, earning them LEED certification for one building and the promise of silver status for another.

The Komodo Dragon Education Center has the distinction of being Summit County's first LEED-certified building and only one of three LEED-certified zoo buildings. Built in 2005, Komodo Kingdom uses geothermal heating and cooling mechanisms that take the air from the ground rather than the air, and use that to heat and/or cool the building. Waterless urinals, smart stormwater management and irrigation help conserve water and cut down on costs. Penguin Point features a custom-built boiler with exposed pipelines that transfer heat from the ambient air to the penguin pool for heating, a water filter and recycling system that recycles roughly eight to 10,000 gallons of water per month significantly saving costs and conserving water. In addition, fans and sprinklers are used to combat mosquitos rather than harmful pesticides. The Farmland renovation included the addition of a 7.38 KW solar array that powers a new hillside train.

Perhaps the biggest green effort to date, though, is the zoo's biggest attraction in 60 years, Grizzly Ridge. Barnhardt is confident that the exhibit's buildings will achieve LEED Silver certification for the significant amount of environmentally responsible design considerations employed by the builders and the zoo. For example, an old, unstable oak tree that stood in the middle of the Grizzly Ridge area was cut down and used for custom carvings of an eight-foot bear statue as well as of two bear cubs, a raccoon and a bald eagle by White Haven, Pa, chainsaw artist, Michael Blaine. Because Grizzly Ridge is built on a hillside, the potential for rainwater to pool and flood is increased. To combat this, builders installed roughly 29,900 square feet of pervious concrete which allows the rainwater to drain and filters pollutants out of the stormwater before it soaks into the ground. Barnhardt described the concrete as being sort of aerated, like a lawn. A bio retention filter also helps manage stormwater and filter pollutants. In addition, several rain barrels are dispersed throughout the exhibit, each holding 52 gallons of water that is used to water the exhibit's plants. A "green" roof on the bear building creates vegetation and reduces the "heat island" effect. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the waste from the project was sent away for recycling with wood, metal and plant materials also used elsewhere throughout the zoo. According to Barnhardt, these efforts did not add extra costs to the project, they were made to fit into the budget.

The people's zoo

The Akron Zoo is committed to the community, so much so that it hosts a number of events geared toward not only kids but also adults throughout the year.

"We hear from our public that they would like to have more adult things to do," Barnhardt says. "With the beer tastings, we are attracting people to come to the zoo who normally wouldn't come."

The Dec. 5 Trunk Show -- 4 to 7:30 p.m. at the Welcome Center -- is also a popular event. The show features 20 local artists and vendors selling everything from jewelry to photos all with a nature theme.

In addition to the Boo at the Zoo and Teddy Bear Care events, the Akron Zoo offers quite a few educational opportunities both within the zoo environment and outside. A popular up close and personal experience for both groups (i.e. scouting troops) and families is the Snooze at the Zoo where the groups spend the night in the Komodo Kingdom building, "roughing it" in close proximity to the animal enclosures. During the day, the kids can make animal enrichment items and shadow the animal keepers as they feed, train, clean up and otherwise tend to their animal charges. The Zoo offers roughly 900 educational programs per year as part of its outreach program, customizing off-site programs, and hosting 25,000 students last year alone.

"We are not concerned with just the animals and the facility," Barnhardt says. "We pride ourselves on being a good community partner." To that end, Barnhardt points out the zoo's outreach within the Akron Public School System where students in need visit the Zoo, pick up a brand new backpack and receive their school supplies for the year.

Its affiliation with Akron Children's Hospital has given birth to Dream Night, a special event geared toward critically ill patients of the hospital who visit the Zoo during the less-crowded evenings. "It is amazing how many people and organizations donate their time and resources toward making this happen," Barnhardt says. The Akron Zoo's outreach and conservation efforts touch people, places and wildlife far beyond its welcoming gates, allowing those close to experience its gifts first-hand and to appreciate the world just a little bit more.

For more information on the Akron Zoo and upcoming events, including Breakfast with Santa and the Animals (Dec. 8, 14, 15, 21, 22), visit www.akronzoo.org.v

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