Zoo Visit – The Pueblo Zoo may be small but it has the power to make you feel six again

Hillary entered through a black gate and into the largest jungle she had ever seen. To her, it was a jungle. In her jungle, there were winding grey paths that led her to creatures she had never seen before. She walked those paths beneath the canopy of trees and watched peacocks strutting  through the grass with tails of bright green and blue feathers trailing behind them.

The more she walked the grey paths, the more fences there were. Behind them were vibrant, spotted and striped animals she had never seen before. They had manes, tails, hooves and antlers. They were much larger than she, but Hillary wished she could let them out and play with them. 

She pressed her fragile, childlike body as close to the fence as she could. The animals stomped, slurped, yelped, snorted and galloped before her eyes. Hillary continued on the grey paths through the jungle, clinging to a larger feminine hand. She yanked on it and told her mother she wanted to see her favorite animal, the one that followed her everywhere. Her mother guided her to another adventure. Hillary looked down at her toes, watching them touch the ground with each step forward, and then she came upon paw prints larger than her feet. Hillary followed them, curiosity leading the way. 

Then her mother pointed through a paned glass window at a pride rock where a lion and lioness sat in the warm sun of the day. The lioness, who saw the presence of small humans before her, lept from the rock, landing delicately on her paws and came to the window where Hillary stood. Hillary wasn’t scared. She approached the glass and placed her hand there. The lioness pressed her body against the glass, almost like she could feel the tiny hand brush her fur. For years, Hillary went back to the zoo, where her favorite animal would follow her around. But eventually Hillary grew up. She stopped visiting the zoo as much. 

I remember visiting the Pueblo Zoo two to three times a week with my mother, brother Vili, and sister Hillary when we were all little kids. We lived in Florence, but my mother said we loved the zoo so much she would take us after our school day was over. I remember that big lioness following my sister around the perimeter of her exhibit and thinking, “she probably wants to eat my sister.” 

We used to do the campouts at the zoo, and enjoyed the glittery night time spectacle of electricritters each year. I remember being so in love with the Pueblo Zoo as a child, but now, I couldn’t even tell you what kind of exhibits are there.

At the age of 25, I wandered the grey paths of the zoo peeking into the various exhibits stopping at each one but only for a few short minutes. I wondered how I had not spent more time here as an adult, and why I only spent a few minutes watching each animal resting in the warm sun. 

It wasn’t as captivating to me anymore. I told myself that being an adult doesn’t allow for the innocent enjoyment of going to the zoo. That wonder and excitement we see in children when they see an exotic animal for the first time can be such a rewarding thing. I wondered how we could get everyone to feel that way again or if we could.

Work began in 1933 on the Pueblo Zoo, which is positioned on 25 acres of land within City Park of Pueblo.  The zoo was completed in the same year.  Pueblo had three displays of zoo animals in the early 1900s with City Park being one of those locations. 

The Pueblo Zoo, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Pueblo City Park Zoo, is host to a variety of unique exhibits like the  Serengeti Safari, North American Grasslands, Colorado Wetlands, the Australian Outback, World of Color (formerly the Herpetarium,) Asian Adventure, the Ecocenter, Islands of Life and Pioneer Ranch. Altogether the zoo boasts a collection of 420 animals and insects.

Pueblo Zoo is one of three accredited zoo parks in Colorado. There are parks across the nation that are considered zoos but are not accredited by the AZA. The AZA hand picks Accreditation Commission Members to evaluate “every zoo or aquarium to make sure it meets AZA’s standards for animal management and care, including living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition.” Becoming an AZA accredited zoo is an extensive process and requires the zoo park to submit an application and various documents on policies, records, procedures, lists and reports. It takes months to fill out the application and it takes an additional six months for the ACM to review the application. After being accredited, every five years a zoo park has to complete this process again. 

For someone who found the Pueblo Zoo to be my hangout spot for 15 years, the treatment of the animals I loved watching was suddenly in the forefront on my mind. How does the zoo handle the treatment of animals along with providing a safe and entertaining facility?

I met with Heather Smith who had fallen in love with animals at a young age and has now been a zookeeper, or Keeper II, with the Pueblo Zoo for 15 years. Smith has seen and shared many memorable events with the animals  including the unexpected birth of Maned Wolf Pups and the unique privilege of raising lion cubs. She has been working for 15 years to enrich the lives of all animals living at the Pueblo Zoo. Heather said one single moment changed the course of her life.   

“As I was a kid, my mom had allergies so I was never allowed to have a dog or cat. I was allowed to have hamsters and fish,” Smith said. Once she went off to college, she adopted dogs, birds and lizards.

It was when she was in college, and working at two zoos, that she first saw a baby Dusky Langur being born. 

“If I could make a career out of taking care of animals, then I don’t really feel like I’m working,” she said.  

A keeper’s regular day is more than just watching animals jump and pounce around a cage. Keepers are responsible for making sure each animal is healthy and safe, is nourished, has a clean exhibit and has something fun to do during the day. 

The staff of zoo keepers, and there are many, spreads out among each unique exhibit  but equally works together to create exhibits and climates to accommodate the needs of the animals as if they are living in their natural habitats. ‘Rearranging the furniture’ is how Smith described it. Changing their environment gives the animals a new place to sleep, a new place to put their food and a new environment to explore. 

Extensive research among staff and sometimes other AZA accredited zoos is done to explore what each animal eats, what their sleeping tendencies are and what their daily habits include. The keeper staff at the Pueblo Zoo created a penguin exhibit complete with its own air filter and climate control to accommodate these little ones. 

But among the daily routine care of animals comes something even more enriching. Smith, along with other keepers, is responsible for raising animals after birth. Smith references the time she took part in raising lion cubs after their mother  rejected them. 

“Many zookeepers will go through their entire career and not have a lion love them,” she said. After raising the cubs, each one was transferred to another zoo. It was a delicate time for Smith, who had gained a true love for the lions. 

Many of the animals Smith cares for are born in captivity. She disagrees with removing animals directly from the wild, but said it is justified when AZA accredited zoos take animals from the wild for good reasons such as in hostage situations where animals are in habitats that are neither safe nor enriching. 

“When they’re born in captivity it’s what they know. So that’s so much better than taking a lion cub away from its mother in the wild and putting it in here.” Smith said. “It’s going to live a long and safe life in a zoo. For penguins, there are no oil spills, no shortage of fish, no predators, no competition.” 

Some animals can’t survive in the wild, are very sick, broken or are endangered. To keep the species thriving, some animals are selected and brought into AZA accredited zoos to prevent extinction. Smith agrees with that process if it means generations of people after her will have the pleasure of seeing them. 

“Some of these animals aren’t going to be around anymore except in zoos,” Smith said. She believes education could help. 

Executive Director Stephanie Stowell agrees. “It’s when I hear, ‘I want to know more,’ that I know we’ve done our job,” she said. 

The zoo continues to work with the community providing assistance for families who can’t afford a day’s trip to Pueblo Zoo. The Pueblo Public Library offers free access passes to four people at a time who want to go to the zoo but can’t afford to. 

The Pueblo Zoo is more than a zoo, “It’s a place where families can spend their time together.” Stowell said.  

Zoo officials say they have been successful over the years in creating a place where animals can be enriched and families can get educated, and with that comes yet another larger goal for the Pueblo Zoo–becoming one of the many zoos that contributes to animal conservation. 

“One of the reasons I took this job a year and a half ago,” Stowell said, “is because I see a great opportunity for Pueblo Zoo, even as a smaller zoo, to have an active role and a greater impact in conservation.” 

Stowell references the success stories happening at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo with replenishing the black footed ferret and candor populations and releasing them to the wild. 

The main focus for Stowell has been on the operating budget deficit, meaning they have more money going out than coming in, but are still able to operate. 

“In order for us to do exciting things like actively contribute to conservation, we need to get our budget right sized. We are really focused on closing our budget deficit and then growing our budget so that we are able to do more programs that actively support conservation,” Stowell said. For the zoo this means the desire to have the community see the value and hard work of the staff and donate to support the staff’s mission.    

Eventually, Pueblo Zoo would like to expand its collection of animals and is set to open new exhibits in 2015 and 2016, including African painted dogs and old world monkeys. 

“We were going to do a black rhino exhibit but selected the African painted dogs and old world monkeys for a variety of reasons,” said Stowell. 

“People tell us their favorite animals are otters and penguins”  she said. People who visit can get up close and personal with smaller animals rather than larger animals. To Stowell, adding the black rhino exhibit would have cost $1 million dollars, and even though rhinos are one of the most compelling conservation stories, the zoo is going to get two popular attractions.

“African painted dogs are one of the most endangered species in Africa, so I can still connect people to important conservation programs and stories,” Stowell said.

The Pueblo Zoo continues to advance its efforts toward enriching current exhibits, adding newer exhibits, adding new and exciting programs to engage Pueblo’s community and investing time in captive breeding. 

“I would like us to be actively doing something here and actively showing our community that zoos are contributing to conservation,” she said.

Learning more about what the keepers do on a daily basis reminded me of the love I and my siblings had for the zoo when we were younger. Walking the grey paths and exploring the exhibits from a distance isn’t the same at 25, but there’s a whole new generation that will have the same experience we so often did. Spending a day at the zoo, donating money, or volunteering time would help the Pueblo Zoo continue to create enriching programs that build awareness for animals and educate children of future generations.

Thinking back and seeing Heather’s passion for working with animals was the reason I loved coming to the zoo. The distance walking the grey paths is shorter and the animals do not seem as big now as when I was a kid. But, because of the caring and dedication of the zoo staff,  the feeling of being a six-year old has returned. Zoos have this effect. 

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