Meridian Industrial

THE ZOO IN FOREST PARK AND EDUCATION CENTER

7/3/2024 | TINA LESNIAK

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For the 225 animals who call The Zoo in Forest Park and Education Center home, the 4.5- acre space offers a peaceful and safe space for them to live their best lives and for the community to enjoy their antics.

“For so many local families, the zoo is an important part of our community fabric. We are a generational destination, having been in operation for more than 132 years in various iterations,” explained Sarah Tsitso, executive director of the zoo. “We are also unique in that we are not a traditional zoo. Instead, we focus mostly on native wildlife and animals that have been deemed nonreleasable by wildlife rehabilitators across the country.

We focus on three main areas — education, conservation and rehabilitation, working to help educate the community about the natural world and our place in it.”

Visitors can find a wide range of animals at the zoo, from monkeys and camels to parrots, eagles, alligators and tortoises.

The newest exhibit at the zoo is the bison, a mother-and-daughter pair. The exhibit aims to teach people how close the bison population came to extinction from overhunting.

“Our unofficial mascot is a Leghorn Rooster named Cheese. He rules the roost — pun intended,” shared Tsitso. “He is a free-range chicken who greets you as you arrive to work each day, walking alongside you and clucking all the gossip. He has his own email account through our website where fans can ask questions or leave him love letters. It’s called, of course, Say Cheese!”

The two resident beavers, Justin Beaver and Cedar, can be found building lodges and swimming in their pond. Cedar is one of the many animals that were rescued and found a new home at the zoo.

“She was rescued when she was just a few days old. Officials had destroyed her lodge and killed her family. She was the only survivor and could not legally be released in her home state,” recalled Tsitso. “Being so young, she would not have survived on her own anyway, especially since beaver babies typically stay with their parents for the first two years of life. Cedar now loves following Justin around and munching on leaves. This kind of story is very common with our animals; we are so proud to provide these guys with a safe, happy, permanent home.”

Orphaned animals are not the only rescues at the zoo. For many animals, the zoo becomes their home when those who were illegally keeping animals, like the raccoons and serval, or who surrender pets when they can no longer provide for them, like many of the exotic birds and tortoises. The zoo also takes in animals with permanent injuries or disabilities, like Cassie the coyote who is missing a leg or Hooma Thurman, the screech owl who is missing an eye.

“Each of our animals is special, with a unique story,” added Tsitso. “And to help us tell those stories, each exhibit here features signage that shares that animal’s particular background and reason for being here.” Each summer, the zoo offers a camp for youth ages 6 to 13 and a Keeper-in-Training program for those ages 14 to 17 that helps youth learn more about the animals.

“Our camp sells out every year and offers a wide variety of fun, interactive, animal-centric programming. Keepers-in-Training work directly with our animal care staff, helping care for our animal residents,” noted Tsitso. “This is a very cool opportunity for teens who are interested in learning more about what it takes to work with animals.”

This summer will also feature weekly keeper talks and hands-on programs for visitors, as well as the opening of the new education center where guests can interact with the reptiles and amphibians.

The annual Brew at the Zoo fundraiser will happen on Saturday, Aug. 3. The event combines craft beer samples from local breweries with animal interactions.

“Attendees can also vote for their favorite home brews in a homebrew competition, listen to live music, play games and enjoy delicious foods from various food trucks,” said Tsitso.

Fundraising is crucial for the zoo, which has been private and nonprofit since the 1960s.

“Our economic impact is bigger than you might imagine, given our relatively small annual operating budget, about $1 million per year,” explained Tsitso. “We are an employer, providing jobs in animal care, education, marketing, fundraising, facilities maintenance, accounting, guest relations and more. We purchase our products locally and raise the bulk of our annual revenue through admissions, education programs, special events, grants and donations.”

The education programs set the zoo apart from similar entities. The zoo has a well-known program that brings animals and educational programming into schools, libraries, senior centers and afterschool programs.

“Our focus on education, particularly our collaboration with other local nonprofits in this area, really sets us apart from other organizations,” said Tsitso. “At our heart, we are an urban zoo, bringing wildlife and animal education to those who may not have opportunities to experience and view the natural world in their everyday life.”

Having recently received two awards from the Zoological Association of America, one for its educational programming and one for its internship program, the future looks bright for the Zoo in Forest Park.

“We hope to expand our work in the realm of rehabilitation and conservation, partnering with groups like Kids Save the Rainforest and the U.S. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife,” said Tsitso. “We are positioning ourselves as an expert in our field, serving as a resource to people and other facilities across the country.”

THE ZOO IN FOREST PARK AND EDUCATION CENTER IS LOCATED AT 293 SUMNER AVE., SPRINGFIELD. ITS HOURS, WEATHER PERMITTING, ARE MONDAY THROUGH SUNDAY, 10 A.M. TO 4 P.M. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ZOO AND ITS ADMISSION RATES, VISIT FORESTPARKZOO.ORG.

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