On a cool, frigid February morning, Tyler and Harriet showed nary a care about the weather as they roll around on an iced-over pond in their enclosure.
The pair of river otters at Henson Robinson Zoo roll over, or roll each other over, in a spot on the ice, wearing it down until the water comes through. Then they jump in and pop out in a delighted whoosh of icy water.
A couple of peacocks meander down the walkway, and some swans are preening in a grassy area at the center of the 14-acre zoo. Two African dogs are curled into furry doughnuts in the sunny spot of their exhibit area, and the zoo's African porcupine sits hunched in all of his prickly wonder in his indoor pen, waiting for warmer days.
Bobcat babies Natasha and Nikki are inside while their exhibit area is being finished. The zoo's three red wolves pace back and forth in their large pen, ignoring the weather. "Winter isn't a bad time to come to the zoo," said Jacqueline Peeler, assistant director.
"People come out in the summer when it's so hot and wonder why the animals aren't all out. They're out, but they duck into the shade and cool off," Peeler said. "We've got animals from North America, and they don't mind the weather."
Home to more than 300 animals, the zoo runs a full educational and entertainment program throughout the year. It has animals from Africa, Asia, Australia and North and South America. The zoo, tucked in a park near the Lake Springfield, has endangered species, a pretty impressive setup and still - a little bit of an identity crisis
"People come here once and think, 'Oh, that's it,'" Peeler said. There are a number of zoo programs that move animals in and out, exhibits are improved and enhanced by volunteers and zookeepers, and the animals evolve and provide great entertainment and educational opportunities.
"We've got 400 members of the Springfield Zoological Society that just love the place," said Talon Thornton, zoo director. "We have people who come here from Chicago and St. Louis who really appreciate the zoo. Yes, if you are expecting bigger animals you won't be seeing that. But we have a great zoo that's affordable, family-friendly and entertaining. It's a great place to have a picnic. You can see all areas of the zoo without being exhausted, and we've got some people who are members just so they can use the playground," he said.
From a practical standpoint, lions and tigers and giraffes would have to be moved inside during the winter, Peeler said.
"So we wouldn't be using their outside enclosures, and we'd have to build and maintain large indoor areas for them."
The zoo's bears, however, also don't mind the weather, although the groundhog will be hibernating.
"The zoo has changed over the past several years," said David Ploskonka, president of the Springfield Zoological Society. "It's gone from a children's zoo to a really great zoo. There are lots of different exhibits, and it changes all the time. For the area we have to work with, it's got some really nice exhibits and a variety of animals. People are surprised when they come out for the first time."
The society is a non-profit organization and the fundraising arm of the zoo. Ploskonka said some people donate for specific exhibits. You can set up an endowment for a specific animal but advises that you to talk to the zoo first about that.
While it would be nice to get an elephant, Ploskonka said, not only would it be expensive to buy and house, it costs about a $500,000 a year to feed one.
The society will be helping fund an eagle exhibit this year.
"No one can own an eagle," Peeler said. "they are all owned by the government and on loan to zoos."
Both of the eagles, Sushi and Freedom, as well as some of the other birds of prey at the zoo, were injured, rehabilitated and then came to the zoo.
"These eagles couldn't survive in the wild. So people who think they are sad and should be freed are wrong. They would die in the wild," Peeler said.
The wolves also belong to the government and are on loan to the zoo.
Education is another feature of the zoo.
"It's a zoo that is just the right size," Thornton said. "Even when we have a lot of people here, there are still zookeepers and staff walking around on the grounds who can answer a question."
There are a plethora of programs being implemented around the world regarding zoos. Some are holding animals for breeding later, some have animals that are too old for breeding, some don't have the space for breeding and their animals will be moving to another zoo. Some animals are part of a family unit and can't be moved and some must be moved before nature takes over and the younger animals challenge the older animals.
Some animals are too old for breeding or moving.
"That's something the public may not realize. As an animal grows old, it stays here and we take care of it until the quality of life means it needs to be euthanized. Last year was a particularly tough year for the zoo staff. We lost both of our cougars and some of our other animals."
The zoo got African penguins last year, but several of the ones that were there are getting on in years. Opus is 23, and considered old for a penguin, and Artie is no spring chicken either, Peeler said.
There are rows and rows of books in Peeler's office that contain genetic records of animals at the zoo as well as animals that might be coming to the zoo.
"The animals here serve a purpose in addition to making sure we continue genetic diversity. They are here to educate and education needs to be fun," she said.
When zoo staff questions children about what they liked the most about the zoo - maybe the cute wide-eyed monkeys or the little muntjacs or the mysterious sloth? Nope, it's the peacocks and the goats in the petting zoo that get kudos from the kids.
"That's OK," Peeler said with a laugh. "We make sure the animals in the petting zoo are nice and calm. If something bites, it doesn't stay here long."
From the wallabies to the butterfly garden to the prairie dogs, there's always something interesting happening at the zoo.
"If you haven't been to the zoo lately," Thornton said, "you need to stop by and take another look."
Henson Robinson Zoo
The zoo's shopping list
When zookeepers go shopping for a week's worth of food here's what would be in the grocery cart: Case of apples, case of oranges, case of grapes, case of spinach, case of romaine, case of red leaf lettuce, 35 pounds of bananas, 23 pounds of baby carrots, 12 pounds of tomatoes, 15 pounds of sweet potatoes, 2 pineapples, 4 pounds of unsalted peanuts, 4 quarts of strawberries, 7 pounds of peppers, 2 heads of cauliflower, 11 pounds of broccoli, 14 pounds of pears, 3 pounds of peaches, 8 pounds of cucumbers, 6 pounds of squash, frozen peas, frozen corn, 2 dozen eggs, yogurt, wheat bread, applesauce, cereal, 4 melons, 3 pounds of kiwi, oatmeal, Jello, baby food, peanut butter, 52 rats, 233 mice, kangaroo and wallaby chow, bear chow, sweet feed, monkey biscuits, canned marmoset food, dog food, cat food, ferret chow, hay, 105 pounds of smelt, browser maintenance, leaf eater gorilla chow, rodent chow, cracked corn, water fowl chow, petting zoo food, chinchilla diet, tortoise chow, fish flakes.
Springfield Park District's Henson Robinson Zoo devotes a lot of time and energy to special events and educational programming. In addition to educational programming at the zoo, Emily McEvoy, education curator at the zoo, does programming at the zoo and also runs the Zoo to You program.
Zoo to You includes a variety of animals, and staff members bring them to an outside site and do a program. The programs are tailored for the specific ages or cognitive abilities of an audience and they are available at a minimal fee.
"We get repeat customers," McEvoy said. "The programs are different, and we've had some of the elementary school students keep coming to programs and eventually becoming volunteers at the zoo."
McEvoy said she talks about the animals, habitats and life cycles. Classroom programming at the zoo is divided into age groups. Younger students can play "Reindeer Games" during the holidays, while the group of 13- to 17-year-olds is studying animal health care.
Birthday parties at the zoo are very popular and include an animal-themed cake, a zoo walk and an animal visit.
There are three volunteer programs in which the public can participate.
Animal enrichment volunteers participate in activities that enhance the animals' physical and psychological well being. This includes making toys and treats and constructing items that help mimic natural environments in the exhibits.
Docents help educate the public about zoo animals. This entails volunteering at a specific exhibit and/or helping educate zoo visitors about biological artifacts. Docents also may handle an animal from the education department while educating the zoo public.
Special event volunteers donate their time during zoo activities. This could include running children's games, dressing up in costume and vendor setup and cleanup. Special events volunteers must be at least 16 years old.
Kim Alexander is in charge of special events at the zoo. Dr. Dolittle Day, a sort of official summer opening event, is held on May 15. This year it also is a celebration of the zoo's 40th anniversary. "We give away free T-shirts at that event, and we show up and find people waiting at the doors to get in," Alexander said.
Admission is free that day.
Party for the Planet is April 17 and includes activities that revolve around ecology and what effects everyday activities have on the planet. Mother's Day and Father's Day at the zoo are popular, as is the June 26 Breakfast with the Animals.
The zoo will join with zoos around the country on June 5 and sponsor World Ocean Day. It is the birthday party for the Dr. Seuss book "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."
A new event this year is BooBoo's Birthday Bash on Aug. 7. Boo Boo, one of the zoo's Asiatic bears, turns 25. Alexander said the Zoolie Ghoulie Halloween party is very popular and staff is hoping for a big turnout at the second annual Casino Night on Aug. 28. That is the Springfield Zoological Society's big fundraiser.
While zoo staff makes the zoo experience interesting and entertaining, there are some things they can't address that eventually need to be worked on.
Zoo executive director Talon Thornton said zoo attendance would likely skyrocket if there were city bus service out to the zoo. One of the problems for events is parking. "The park lets us park in their area for some of the events," Thornton said, "but if the weather is bad and it's muddy - that's not an option. We know that a lot of people didn't attend the Halloween party last year because they would have had to walk several blocks from the park's paved parking lot to the zoo in costumes."
A larger zoo would be nice, staff said, and that may happen in the future. It would involve a complicated land swap from the city and City Water Light and Power, which owns chunks of land that border the zoo.
For more information on educational programming, special events and volunteer opportunities call 753-6217 and ask for that area of interest. Events and educational information are also on the zoo's Web site, www.hensonrobinsonzoo.org
Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )