Category Archives: Zoo

Gayla Peevey’s Hippo Song…Still Going!

I’m always honored to write another article about Gayla Peevey.  This one was published in Outlook Magazine Dec 2017 (see link). After it came out, I escorted Gayla and her family to the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Sing-a-Long.  You’ll see a teaser that the Zoo planned to make a “big” announcement.  As you might have guessed– we got a new hippopotamus for Christmas this year, and Gayla was on-hand to welcome her second hippo in her lifetime~Amy

Photo provided by Gayla Peevey

“I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas….”

What is it about this chipper little song that has stood the test of time? Oklahoma radio stations have kept the song alive for 64 years because of its distinctly historical roots. It was sung by an Oklahoma child-star, Gayla Peevey. She presented such a darling request that the community jumped on a promotional band wagon to actually buy Gayla a hippo! The Oklahoma City Zoo gladly accepted the responsibility of caring for Mathilda for the next fifty years.

But it takes more than a good back story for a song to reach the status of American holiday classic. The song’s original artist, Gayla Peevey Henderson, has her own insight into the song’s longevity. “The hippo song is a well-written, well-constructed song. The arrangement, the storyline and everything about it was quality. That’s why it’s stood the test of time.”

In the last 10 years, the song has not only seen a resurgence, it’s become a pop culture presence. Hallmark can’t keep its annual hippo ornaments, which play the song, on the shelf. A growing number of modern artists, including Kasey Musgraves and LeAnn Rimes, have recorded the song. In December, the hippo song is one of the most highly-downloaded holiday ringtones on iTunes. The United States Postal Service used the song in their holiday advertising campaign last year, which ranked as the #2 National Television Commercial by Billboard.

“All of a sudden, the song got rediscovered,” Gayla said. “I started getting calls from DJs around the world–Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and Australia–claiming it as the most popular Christmas song on the air.” (This line was cut from the published version, for spacing)

Gayla Peevey with 2017 hippo merchandise at the OKC Zoo. Photo by A Stephens.

The song’s resurgence also changed Gayla’s life. For 50 years, she’d pretended that the song had little significance. Most people in her life had no idea she’d sung it as a child. “I didn’t want to be a “has-been” because that felt like being a failure, so I just never mentioned it.”

Following Gayla’s hit song, Columbia Records pigeon-holed her into singing kiddie songs, like “Kitty in the Basket.” Even Gayla thought they were silly and poorly written. Belting out country songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was how she’d landed on “The Chuckwagon Gang,” a local WKY-TV show, and later, national shows including “Saturday Night Revue” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Gayla’s parents, lacking show business savvy, were overwhelmed by her popularity. They uprooted her to California, and by the time she was an adult, her recording career had ended. Her adult friends had no idea that she’d once performed on stage with Dean Martin, Jimmie Durante, Grace Kelly and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The hippo song, however, continued to live a life without her. In 2007, Gayla was visiting family in Oklahoma and she chanced to meet an Oklahoma City Zoo employee who was aware of her role in securing the zoo’s first hippopotamus. The zoo began planning a live sing-a-Long event for 2011 to celebrate the song’s story. Gayla was nervous that no one would show up to see her, but a large, enthusiastic crowd arrived, and Gayla was surprised by the long line for autographs.

Gayla Peevey and Amy Stephens, Dec 9, 2017 at the OKC Zoo ZooZeum.

This year, the zoo is again hosting Gayla for a live sing-a-long on Saturday, December 9th. Gayla will perform and share her memories of receiving a 700-pound Christmas gift in 1953. Afterward, attendees are invited to meet Gayla in person and view artifacts from her personal history. Gayla will also be sharing a big announcement on behalf of the zoo.

“After an ordinary life, this is like stepping back in time. I’ve been so rejuvenated to know that people remember my connection to the zoo. It’s a happy, positive, joyful song to be remembered by, and I now treasure that.”


To view Outlook Magazine Article:

To visit Gayla’s official site:

Other Gayla articles by Amy:

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Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame: Anna Myers

I wouldn’t have met Anna if a leopard hadn’t escaped the Oklahoma City Zoo in 1950. Although I wasn’t yet born, Anna had vivid memories of that leopard roaming around town, and she wondered if she might be the one to help catch it. She later wrote a fiction book based on that memory, Spotting the Leopard.

Amy Stephens and Anna Myers.  Photo by Stacey Nyikos.

Amy Stephens and Anna Myers. Photo by Stacey Nyikos.

In 2004, I was doing research on my book Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959 and wanted to talk to Anna about her first-hand recollections of that event, which made headlines around the world. I set up a phone interview with her and she said, “Looking back, it seemed like we were in terror for weeks, not just three days.”

Although I had read many of Anna’s books and heard her speak at several EncycloMedia events, in my view, that interview was the catalyst to our friendship. A few years later, I joined the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which she had been voluntarily leading for years. Through that organization, she has become a mentor and cheerleader for my writing career. I’m so grateful to have met her and to study at her feet.

What I admire most about Anna is that she generously fosters other writers along their journey. She invests her time, energy and hospitality in to us. Many times I’ve heard her say that some of her favorite people, besides family, are her writer friends. I’ve come to feel that way too, and many of those friendships have been formed in her very own living room.

Anna Myers hosting writer friends in her home.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

Anna Myers hosting writer friends in her home. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Last night, it was an honor to attend the ceremony that inducted Anna Myers into the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. Anna has written 19 young adult novels, including Red Dirt Jessie and The Keeping Room.

Her son, Ben, gave a lyrical introduction of his mother, speaking of her perseverance and integrity.  In her acceptance speech, she eloquently stated that the power of “story” is second only to love, and that children are easily moved by the power of story. She referred to the Bible scripture Joel 1:3, “Tell it to your children….and their children to the next generation.”

Through her books and through her life, Anna is passing her wisdom down to the next generation, and I’m proud to call her friend.

Patti Bennett and Amy Stephens.  Photo by Darleen Bailey Beard.

Patti Bennett and Amy Stephens. Photo by Darleen Bailey Beard.


Patti's 85th birthday cake. Photo by Amy Stephens

Patti’s 85th birthday cake. Photo by Amy Stephens

I’d like to mention that one writer friend Anna and I share is Patti Bennett, who celebrated her 85th birthday recently.  Sitting in Anna’s living room, Patti surprised us by quoting beautiful poetry from her days as an English teacher. She has retained her youthful beauty and spirit.  I love Patti dearly and admire her writing.

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Artists Inspired by the Zoo

I was honored to interview these four wonderful artists who use the zoo as a resource for creating their nature-inspired paintings and drawings. ~Amy 

Jan McGuire, Acrylic Paintings

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire (Bartlesville) paints so that viewers can step into a scene and feel as if they are there. Not surprisingly, she uses photographs and travel experiences to make her acrylic art very realistic.

“I study nature. I go outside every day. Nature is so diverse that I never have trouble coming up with ideas to paint,” McGuire said.

McGuire, who specializes in bird and mammal paintings, has exhibited her art globally, from Tanzania to the Smithsonian. She and her husband, a professional wildlife photographer, visit the zoo multiple times each year, seeking to capture the fine details that cause people to step into a scene, to feel the velvet moss, and to smell the flowers….

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

“What I appreciate about the Oklahoma City Zoo is the bird aviary in Oklahoma Trails. So many zoos focus on non-North American species. I’m fortunate enough to travel to Africa every year, so I’m much more interested in seeing native species up close. Songbirds are hard to view from a distance, but in the aviary, the birds are acclimated enough to people that we can get great photos.”

Her scissor-tailed fly catcher painting is a direct result of a visit to the zoo. She added tall grass prairie wildflowers to create an accurate habitat for the background.

“We have great wildlife in this state,” McGuire said. “When people see us at the zoo with our big cameras, they always ask us animal questions. I can’t help but educate people about animals. My husband has to keep reminding me, ‘You don’t work here.’”

Jay Tracy, Acrylic Paintings

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

It’s no surprise that Jay Tracy (Oklahoma City) became a painter, because his parents have owned an art company since 1968. After experimenting with different mediums since childhood, he now specializes in realism, landscapes and animal portraits.

“My entire life has revolved around art, all types of art,” Tracy said. “My most popular commissioned paintings are landscapes, florals, and animals. I’ve always loved animals, and I’m a big dog person.”

Working as a graphic artist for ten years at the Oklahoma City Zoo has allowed him to dabble in many different styles, from designing event posters on the computer to carving foam props for Haunt the Zoo. He particularly enjoys creating the ZooZeum exhibit panels.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

As an evening job, Tracy teaches painting classes at the Paint Your Art Out gallery. He creates an original design, and then he leads the students in creating the same painting, but with their own unique style. His most requested themes are nature paintings.

In an effort to help animals, Tracy shares his artistic skills by offering special painting classes, in which the proceeds go toward the zoo’s rhino conservation fund. Each year he creates a new design, like the Serengeti landscape or this year’s popular peacock design.

“Working at the zoo has taught me to have a greater concern for animals that are near extinction. I realize how important conservation is and the important role we can play in saving animals.”

Jerry Bennett, Comic Illustrations

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

From superheroes to children’s picture books, comic art is a pop-culture craze, and Jerry Bennett (Edmond) is making a living drawing it.

“I grew up on comic books, cartoons and Disney,” Bennett said. “Now I draw licensed comic books and t-shirt designs for Marvel, Lucasfilm, and most recently, Power Rangers.”

Many of Bennett’s original science-fiction characters are created by combining animal features, like a recent lizard/cat creature for his Nadir’s Zenith series. He often visits the zoo to seek inspiration, because he finds that, “Sketching real animals helps me discover their personalities and attitudes.”

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Early in his career, when Bennett’s “real job” was working at a door store, he did picture books and portraits as a side job. His big break came when he designed a Ghost Busters/Star Wars t-shirt design.

“That was when the Internet was still new. I sold 3,000 shirts in 24 hours. Someone said, ‘Your image went viral,’ and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’”

Now Bennett sees his drawing skills coming together, because many children’s books are starting to rely on comic book style art. However, many adults are familiar with Bennett’s art. Last year, he created a popular illustration of the Thunder basketball team for the cover of the Gazette and an Avengers design for the cover of the Oklahoma Humanities magazine.

Jerry Bennet drawing, images used by permission.

Jerry Bennet drawing, printed with permission.

Don’t be surprised to see Bennett at the zoo with his sketch book and fellow artists. He’s found that the zoo is a great location for “sketch crawls.” Artists go from exhibit to exhibit, drawing animals and creating story ideas.

“I think all kinds of artists are inspired by animal life and nature,” Bennett said. “My next goal is to write and illustrate a graphic novel about alien cats!”

Cliff Casey, Pencil Portraits

Sometimes people cry when they see Cliff Casey’s artwork. That’s because Casey (Norman) specializes in drawing favorite animals and special moments in people’s lives.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

“I did a dog portrait for a client at Christmas. He said his wife cried when she saw the gift, because the dog’s facial expression was captured exactly.”

Casey works from photographs, sometimes combining people, animals, or locations together into one scene.

The zoo recently commissioned Casey to paint a portrait for Byron J. Gambulos, upon his retirement from the Zoological Trust. Gambulos and his wife, Patricia, had their first date at the zoo in the 1940s. Using an early photograph of 1940s visitors and the zoo’s original entrance, Casey recreated that special moment on canvas.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Casey has worked as a graphic artist at the zoo for 14 years. He really enjoys creating two and three dimensional artwork. Right now he’s carving a new sign for the Dan Moran Aviary out of a sign material that looks like wood.

“When I’m doing animal art, I take a lot of research photos at the zoo, looking to see how an animal has its head or body positioned.”

He nearly went to college to train as a park ranger, until a counselor talked him into going to art school instead. Now, Casey’s wildlife illustrations of turkey, deer and bears are published in many sportsman magazines.

“I grew up in the woods and on the lake,” Casey said, “but I can’t get outside or go fishing as much anymore, so drawing nature gives me a chance to connect with nature.”

(Note: This is a longer version of the text, as seen first in ZooSounds  Summer 2013, printed with permission)


Filed under Inspiration for Writers, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

George Miksch Sutton: Bird Author and Illustrator

This week, I had the pleasure of installing a new museum exhibit on the life of George Miksch Sutton (1989-1982). Sutton is best known for his thousands of bird illustrations. Because he was a professional ornithologist (bird expert), it is not surprising that his artwork is very detailed and precise. Whenever he observed birds in the wild, he took careful notes in his field journals. These notes later made it into the many books he wrote.

zoozeum blog imageClick to see a 1.5 minute behind-the-scenes of the new Sutton exhibit at the Oklahoma City ZooZeum.

I discovered Sutton’s connection to the Oklahoma City Zoo over a period of two years. It began when our graphics department found a bronze bust of him, buried in a back closet. Later, I found some of his autographed books in the zoo’s library. As all historians do, I started connecting the pieces and discovered that he used the zoo as a source of inspiration, led zoo member safaris, and even had two previous exhibits named in his honor.
Sutton PosterFINAL2

Official Zoo Press Release:
RENOWNED BIRD ARTIST HONORED THROUGH OKC ZOO ART EXHIBIT A new exhibit, In Feathered Detail: The Art of George Miksch Sutton, debuts Monday, February 18, at the ZooZeum, Oklahoma City Zoo’s historical museum and gallery. This exhibit showcases the talents of world-renowned ornithologist George Miksch Sutton. Sutton, who died in 1982 at the age of 84, was an acclaimed bird artist, researcher, author, scientist and teacher whose life’s works are still influencing bird enthusiasts today.

9780806117041_p0_v1_s260x420The date of the exhibit’s opening ceremony coincides with the Zoo’s free admission Monday, allowing the public to participate in the festivities without charge. An opening reception will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the ZooZeum with refreshments, art activities and a visit from one of the Zoo’s live feathered friends. The exhibit is made possible with help from several lending institutions, including the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, Sam Noble Museum of Natural History and the University of Oklahoma Libraries’ Western History Collections.

Sutton, whose first bird drawings were published in his early teens, was a long-time friend and supporter of the Oklahoma City Zoo. He became intrigued with Oklahoma’s rich variety of birds in the 1930s, became a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s and began writing and illustrating books on Oklahoma birds in the 1960s. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1967. In the 1970s, Sutton helped guide three safari expeditions with Oklahoma Zoological Society members and Zoo staff, including the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon and Mexico. The Zoo has dedicated two previous animal exhibits in his honor: the Amazonia in 1974 and Galapagos Islands in 1981.

The exhibit will remain open during Zoo hours from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily through May 31, 2013. Zoo admission is required. The ZooZeum is located adjacent to the Zoo’s Elephant Pavilion in the Elephant Habitat. Originally built as a bathhouse, the 76-year-old building was opened to house the Zoo’s historical archive and two museum galleries. The ZooZeum enables visitors to discover the Zoo’s history and reconnect with their own zoo memories.

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Artist Profile: Patrick Riley

By Amy Dee Stephens (ZooSounds, Winter 2013, reprinted with permission)

 During a recent trip to the zoo, artist, Patrick Riley, had a personal experience with Chandra the rhino that inspired him to create a leather mask in his honor.  The mask, titled Chandra, is now part of a series of animal masks on display at a local art gallery. 

Animal mask designed by Patrick Riley.

Animal mask designed by Patrick Riley.

 Riley is best known for his sculptures and mask creations, especially those of animals.

“I like animals because they are an important part of our culture,” Riley said.  “All the cultures in the world have made animal masks.” 

 Earlier in the year, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court unveiled Riley’s 28-foot, stainless steel eagle sculpture.  The eagle, represented as an oversized mask, is a permanent feature of the building.  He was also commissioned to create a mask for musician, Lady Gaga, which was presented to her at her 2010 concert at the Ford Center.  Although it didn’t include an animal element, he still chose nature in the form of lightning bolts to represent her “dark side.”     

 Riley asserts that animals are an impetus for his art.  During our 40-minute phone interview, he also proved his ability to create animal art under any circumstance. 

Patrick Riley

Patrick Riley

“I hope you don’t mind, but while we talk, I’m going to keep sculpting a totem pole,” Riley said.  “It’s of an eagle, buffalo and bear to represent the Native American peoples.  Now let me tell you, the zoo has been a part of my entire life.  My grandparents lived at NE 10th street, so every time I came to their house, we went to the zoo.   I met Luna, the elephant back in the 1940s.  I helped raise money to buy Judy the elephant, and I remember that fearsome Carmichael the polar bear.”

 Riley interrupted his memories to say “Hi!” to some kids in the distance.  I heard them return the greeting and ask him a few questions.

 “Sorry about that,” Riley said returning to our conversation.  “I’m at an elementary school in Shawnee, working as an artist-in-residence.  We’ve been learning about coastal Indians and how they used totem poles.  The kids made small animal totems with paper and masking tape, and then we constructed this 8-foot one.  Right now, I’m putting the concrete on it while I’m talking to you.”

 He jumped back into his discussion about the zoo.

 “I’ve been teaching art for forty-eight years.  Back in the mid-sixties, I directed a summer program called Creative Arts Lab.  Every day we took our kids to the zoo and used it as a catalyst to teach visual arts, creative writing and music.  That program was the prelude to the Oklahoma Arts Institute.”img036


“I started making masks in the 1970s and had the good fortune to show them in New York City at an art show on Madison Avenue.  Back then, I used a lot of different feathers, but that was before the Migratory Bird Act.  See, back when I was young, we had no vision that animals could cease to exist in the wild.  Kids these days have a totally different approach to animals; that they should preserve and photograph animals instead of kill them.”

 Once again, Riley broke his train of thought to comment that the concrete bison on the totem pole was almost done.  “I hope it will set up, but there are a few spots that look like they want to cave in.” 

 After a brief pause, he continued.  “Back when I taught at John Marshall High School, I took lots of kids to the zoo to draw.  We even did a mural of a big snake near the prairie dog exhibit in old 1970s Children’s Zoo.  I’m walking history to the fact that kids can be successful if they stay involved in arts, not just academics.  Our whole society is art based!  Look at TV; it’s all about visual drama, commercial advertising, and graphic design.  Art is everywhere.”

Chandra the Rhino, mask by Patrick Riley.

Chandra the Rhino, mask by Patrick Riley.

“But the real reason you called is to ask me about Chandra the rhino.  About six months ago, it was a pretty day, so I brought my easel to the zoo to draw.  Chandra was sitting on his side, taking it slow and easy.  I was drawing a picture of him but the sun shifted and reflected right off that white paper into his eyes.  He was up and at em’ in about ten seconds.  He jumped up on all fours, looking me over.  He was so active and so wild, just like he’s supposed to be, that I had to take a photograph of him.  I decided right then to make a leather rhino mask to tell that story.” 

 “My art show also features masks inspired by the zoo’s bears and eagle from Oklahoma Trails, and one of your elephants, also named Chandra.  That new elephant exhibit, now, that is really spectacular.  I know the InAsMuch Foundation helped fund it.” 

 “Hold on, let me say ‘Hi’ to these kids.  They’ve been dropping by between classes all day to watch me work on the totem.  They are going ‘Wow,’ because they are experiencing art first hand, not just seeing the final product.  Seeing that process changes their approach to how art is made.  Maybe they will want to try something themselves.  Maybe they will come to the zoo and be inspired, like I was.”

 Patrick Riley’s art is currently on display at the JRB Art Gallery in the Oklahoma City Paseo Arts District.

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The Search for a Rare Bird

A decade ago, while on a research project, I got up at 5:30 a.m. to hide behind a stack of sticks.  As the sun rose, I heard the booming call of the Prairie Chicken in the distance.  I now know that I had a rare experience–as you will see from this article about a new zoo conservation project.  ~Amy 

Lek Trek: The Search for a Rare Oklahoma Bird by Amy Dee Stephens

 Field Notes:  We hoped to sneak closer to the elusive bird, but had no trees to hide behind, only the prairie sage at our feet.  Was it possible that the bird’s lekking ground was merely a mile away?  We strained to hear past the sound of oil pumps, listening for the rarely-heard bird call…“Boom, boom, boom.” 

 Can’t afford that jungle excursion or African safari this year?  Oklahomans have the rare chance to join their own animal expedition in search of disappearing wildlife in the Great Plains.  The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) is desperately seeking manpower as they gather data about local species. 

Site of the 2012 Prairie Chicken research project, Cheyenne, Oklahoma. Photo by Stacey Sekscienski.

 In April, 18 zoo employees made the week-long trek to northwest Oklahoma to help ODWC discover if Lesser Prairie Chicken populations are declining or holding steady.  Poor results might land the bird on the federal Endangered Species List.

 “The goal is to find proof that prairie chickens are viable so that they don’t have to be listed,” said Christine Zbytowski, bird keeper.  “It’s best for the birds and the land owners if their populations stay stable.” 

 Little Land on the Prairie

Unfortunately, the Great Plains is disappearing at an alarming rate as land is developed for crops and the oil and gas industry.  Surveys indicate that only 10% of the birds’ original home range remains intact.  Concerned citizens are faced with the on-going challenge of balancing human advancement and wildlife conservation. 

 “I hadn’t been in northern Oklahoma in awhile, and it’s becoming much more commercial,” said Michael Howarth, maintenance employee.  “I saw more pump jacks, windmill turbines and lots of new stores.  Those people have to make a living, and I have family that works in the oil industry, so I can’t complain, but it’s definitely impacting the landscape.”

 With A Boom and a Bubble

How is the prairie chicken faring at this point?  It’s too early to tell.  Four or five years of survey data is required to make a determination—and the prairie chicken is not an easy bird to spot!  In fact, it is so difficult to find, that the preferred survey method is to listen for its call. 

 Each spring, male prairie chickens gather on a high spot with sparse grass, called a lek.  They “perform” for the females by lowering their wings and tail feathers, puffing up purple neck sacks, and strutting around.  They also jump up and down, making loud booming and bubbling sounds.  The booming can be heard a mile away on a calm day.   

 Field Work in a Field 

In order to avoid interrupting the bizarre courtship ceremony, researchers keep their distance.  Zoo employees who participated in the project were trained to identify the booming sound by listening to a recording.  To actually see the birds on the prairie was considered a big bonus.    

 “Each team started at sunrise along a different route,” said Cliff Casey, graphic artist.  “We drove a mile down the road, walked into the field, listened for three minutes, and then went another mile.  We heard some, but didn’t see any.”

 As with any field work, problems arose. 

 “This year was a bummer,” said Zbytowski.  “It rained all but one day.  The back roads were slick and muddy, and the wind speeds were so high that we couldn’t hear anything.  But last year, my team actually got close enough to a lek to get video of the prairie chickens jumping around and displaying.”


Site of 2012 Prairie Chicken Survey. Photo by Stacey Sekscienski.

Score 53 for Chickens!

Despite low returns this year, the staff felt good about their efforts.  Most plan to help again next year.    

 “Yes, I take care of birds at the zoo, but going out and helping local wildlife is really practicing our message of conservation.  I’m not originally from Oklahoma, but I can help be the eyes and ears for Oklahoma species,” said Zbytowski.

 The first year for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Survey was 2011.  The zoo’s conservation committee dedicated $20,000 both last year and this year to the project, in addition to donating zoo employee assistance.  Although this year’s results are unannounced, last year’s nearly-500 survey spots netted 53 “hearings” and 33 sightings of prairie chickens.  Only time will reveal the significance of these numbers.           

 Your Turn for Adventure

Would you like to hear or see this rare Oklahoma bird on its lekking grounds?  Consider joining the efforts of the ODWC.  The prairie chicken survey isn’t the only opportunity for local citizens to help with research.  Currently, the zoo is also assisting with the Bat Survey, Winter Bird Survey, Horned Lizard Survey, and many others.    

 “You don’t have to be a zoo employee to do this,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, Director of Veterinary Services.  “ODWC only has two wildlife biologists who have to manage conservation projects for the whole state.  They need all the volunteers they can get.”

 So, pick your own animal expedition this year, right here in Oklahoma. Maybe you will help keep an animal off the Endangered Species List.     

 Visit for further information about wildlife conservation.  (This article reprinted by permission from ZooSounds, Fall 2012.)

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Carmichael the Famous Polar Bear

What do a polar bear, the 1903 World’s Fair, Jack Benny and Bugs Bunny have to do wtih the Oklahoma City Zoo?  Carmichael!  This beloved zoo bear had a curious past that spanned 100 years!  (Article printed with permission)  ~Amy 

Carmichael the Polar Bear  By Amy Dee Stephens

 Many Oklahoma City Zoo visitors fondly remember Carmichael the Polar Bear, but few realize that his story goes back over 100 years! 

Carmichael’s history is filled with mystery and inconsistency.  Only one thing is clear about the zoo’s polar bears–several different Carmichaels lived at the zoo.  Beyond that, records are conflicting. 

ZooSounds, Spring 2012

According to newspaper articles, the zoo’s first polar bear was over 40-years-old when he arrived in 1939.  Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the original owner of the dancing polar bear, sent Carmichael to America for the 1903 St. Louis World’s Fair. 

He was living at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 1939 when Oklahoma City traded two yaks for Carmichael.  During his entire truck-ride from Colorado, the polar bear growled, raged and pawed the floor.  He had reputation for being dangerous and difficult.     

Carmichael’s name was a result of popular culture.  His original name was Court of Rome, named after his birthplace.  A newspaper reporter introduced Oklahomans to the zoo’s first polar bear using the nickname “Carmichael,” because Jack Benny, a popular comedian, had a “pet” polar bear named Carmichael on his radio show.  (Mel Blanc, the famous voice of Bugs Bunny, was also the voice of Carmichael).     

Postcard of Carmichael at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

In 1951, the zoo decided to replace the aged bear, who would have been an unbelievable sixty-years-old.  A polar bear’s average lifespan is 35 years, so another polar bear named Carmichael may have lived at the zoo sometime during this period.  Shortly after trading him, a one-year-old polar bear cub moved into Carmichael’s quarters.  The public called him Carmichael, so the name stuck for a second (or maybe third) generation of polar bears. 

This final Carmichael is perhaps best remembered by Oklahomans as the bear who paced.  People felt sorry him during the unbearably hot summers (during a time prior to expensive chilled habitats).  Zoo philosophy toward animal welfare had also changed, and everyone agreed that Oklahoma was not the best climate for a polar bear.  With both relief and sadness, zoo officials relocated Carmichael to another zoo on a breeding loan in 1969.    

Although the zoo has been without polar bears for over 40 years—Carmichael’s name is mentioned nearly every day by zoo visitors who remembered him fondly. 

 Curious where Carmichael used to live in the zoo?  If you stand by the carousel and look toward the Herpetarium, you will see the curved bars along the back of that building where he and his predecessor(s) once lived.  The ZooZeum also displays part of his old cage, which dates back to 1907.  The rock grotto and moat (seen in the postcard) is likely the currently location of the Leaping Lizard ride. 

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OKC Zoo’s Male Elephant Arrives

It’s a historical moment!  The Oklahoma City Zoo is on its way to building an entire herd of elephants.  This story about Rex, the new male, is from a fwe months ago and reprinted with approval. ~Amy

“Rex’s Trek” article from ZooSounds, Spring 2012 edition.

Rex’s Trek by Amy Dee Stephens

Trumpets, please!  Rex is here.  This long-anticipated male elephant has a big job—increasing the zoo’s elephant herd with new babies.  Fortunately, he comes with experience, already having added five babies to the Asian elephant population.

“One of the main reasons we wanted Rex is because he’s a proven breeder,” said Nick Newby, Pachyderm Supervisor.  “The Species Survival Plan gave us some options, and he seemed the best fit for us.”

Rex arrived on December 13th, after a long ride from his previous home in Canada.  It only took a short ten minutes to unload him off the truck and into his new stall.  Of course, he was unaware of the supporters that made his historic trek to Oklahoma City possible—many were children.  From November 16 to December 7, children raised $1,300 to help pay for Rex’s transportation across 1,300 miles.   

The fundraising campaign, “Rex’s Trek,” was the brainstorm of Dana McCrory, Director of the Oklahoma Zoological Society and Cindy Batt, Private Bank Manager for BOK who was recently appointed Trustee for OZS. 

The idea of reviving the 1930 and 1949 penny campaigns in which the children of Oklahoma City raised money to buy elephants Luna and Judy was a natural fit for this exciting addition to our zoo.

“BOK is honored to support the zoo; such an important educational destination in our city,” said Katie Price, BOK Vice President, Community Relations Manager.           

BOK accepted donation at all their branches in specially designed collection bags.  Children from all over Oklahoma City dropped off their donations and then dollars were collected in a special account.  The bank also involved their adopted school, Westwood Elementary.  Batt, McCrory and Newby visited Westwood during an all-school assembly to get the students excited about the campaign.  It worked, because they raised $1,200. 

“It was so fun to talk to the kids about Rex and answer their questions,” said Newby.  “It was motivating for them and for me.”

Three- and four-year-olds from the zoo’s Nature Explorers Preschool also raised money for Rex.  In just two weeks, the eleven children raised $100.  According to Randelyon Phillips, Naturalist Instructor, the children’s families jumped in by making donation jars. 

“The kids were so excited, even though they didn’t fully realize the concept of money,” said Phillips.  “For them, it was fun to see their money jars full to the top.” 

When the children delivered their donations to Penny, the zoo’s elephant mascot, their faces lit up with joy. 

Preschool children give their money to zoo elephant mascot. Photo by Randelyon Phillips.

“They gave hugs and high fives to Penny,” said Phillips.  “Then, the kiddy carousel ride outside the Guest Relations office made its elephant trumpeting sound and the kids thought it was Rex.  They thought he was saying ‘I’m coming’—it was so cute!”

A week later, when Rex arrived, the preschoolers visited him at the elephant exhibit and welcomed him toOklahoma City. 

“Miss Randelyon, are we inCanada?” asked three-year-old Nkem House.

“I love Rex,” said four-year-old Isabella Curtis.  He’s so gray.”

He’s also hairy, freckled and “mammoth-looking,” based on other comments by zoo visitors. 

“Asian elephants are pretty hairy, so that’s not so unusual,” said Newby.  “But the main question we get is about his tusks being cut off.  That’s for maintenance, because routine trimming prevents them from growing too long and helps maintain the health of the tusk.”  

Since Rex’s arrival, he’s been calm and cautious.    

“He’s a really good animal, but he’s still a boy.  He investigates cautiously and hasn’t shown aggression—of course he hasn’t’ been in musth yet,” said Newby.  “We can’t be too careful.  This is all new to him.  He spent 27 years with his previous trainer, and now he’s getting use to new people, in a new place, with a new routine.”

The pachyderm staff is pleased with how well Rex is adjusting.  He is learning new behaviors through a different style of training from what he already knew.  Newby was the first to introduce him to training using a target.  The target, a long piece of bamboo with a buoy attached to the end, is used to touch and guide him.

“Every time I touch him with the target, he hears and click and gets a reward,” Newby said.  “The first time, he didn’t know what was going on, but it only took him one session to figure out, ‘target touching means food.’” 

Newby explained that the pachyderm staff plans to keep Rex’s training very simple.  He may eventually be used in the elephant demonstration yard, after modifications are made to make it safe enough for a male bull, but Rex is specifically here to breed. 

Already, Rex is “meeting” Chandra, the female elephant.  They’ve had face time  through protective barriers, greeted each other, and touched trunks.  The introduction has gone well, so the plan is to allow them to spend time together when Chandra enters her reproductive cycle this spring. 

In the long run, Rex will spend limited time with the herd.  Males are mostly solitary, so he will only visit the females a few times a week for social interaction.

“But they can’t be too buddy-buddy, or the romance wears off,” Newby said. 

Even though Rex’s Trek has brought him safely to Oklahoma City, his journey is far from over.  His future holds many new experiences, the hope of new babies, and an exciting new era for the zoo’s elephant population.

The children who helped raise pennies for Rex will carry on a proud Oklahoma City Zoo tradition, which began back in 1930; knowing that “I helped bring an elephant to the zoo.”

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Amy Named Employee of the Year

Amy surrounded by those who wrote Employee of the Year nominations. Photo by Steve Gooch.

 I was surprised and honored when the zoo awarded me as Employee of the Year.  Four lovely people wrote nominations: Todd Bridgewater, Tara Henson, Teresa Randall and Candice Rennels.  I cherish each of them and will always be grateful. 

With permission, I’ve included Todd’s nicely-written nomination, followed by the zoo press release. 

Amy Stephens’ enthusiasm and passion the Oklahoma City Zoo’s history is nothing short of contagious. Her research connects the zoo’s growth to significant events in our community. It covers everything from animal behavior and husbandry, construction and exhibit design, civil rights and political figures, community and culture, and two once forgotten beer-drinking monkeys.

In the beginning…

Even though it was beyond her scope of duties, Amy dedicated the past 8 years to salvaging and archiving 108 years of zoo history. She first excavated the Daily Oklahoman archives for stories of Wheeler Park and the Lincoln Park Zoo. This yielded enough material to fill twelve D-ring binders and publish two books: Oklahoma City Zoo Now and Then and Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959

Additional articles further revealed her gifts as a talented writer and story-teller.  She imparted the significance of our zoo’s history to the community, state and the global profession by respectively publishing articles for ZooSounds, Distinctly Oklahoma and NAI’s Legacy Magazine.  In short, these publications became stepping stones to sharing the Zoo’s rich, and often humorous culture, in person.

She inspired others…

Amy and Mike at the ZooZeum grand opening, April 9, 2011. Photo by Lisa Franks.

Amy presented many programs to community groups (i.e., Rotary, Edmond Newcomers Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Red Hat Ladies, Ladies Auxiliary, etc.) about the zoo’s first 50 years. Several of these occurred on her personal time; however each benefitted the zoo. Her presentations increased our community’s awareness of, interest in and donations toward the overarching goal of creating a formal zoo museum. Note – it is extremely difficult to measure the effect of a specific program on someone’s attitude. In this case, one only needs to look at the zoo’s archive collection. Its growth is a direct reflection of her personal commitment and activism in saving zoo history. Current and past employees, as well as public citizens, donated numerous personal and historical affects producing a unique and diversified collection (i.e, articles, postcards, video, slides, t-shirts, artifact, etc.). Sixteen individuals even contributed their life stories through a recording project with the Metropolitan Library System. Volunteers have spent more than 800 hours cataloging over 6,000 items, with more waiting to be processed.

To create something new from something old…

Overlooking the 80-year-old bathhouse that is now the ZooZeum. Photo by Todd Bridgewater.

Opening a museum requires vision, creativity and an ability to communicate both with clarity. Amy’s management style ensured that everyone stayed informed and involved. By working with multiple zoo departments, she guided a renovation process that turned a 4,000 sq. ft. dilapidated building into a beautiful exhibit space. Appropriately named the ZooZeum, the building features two exhibit galleries with museum quality cases, oversized graphic panels, multimedia presentation platforms and more. Her attention to detail not only included aesthetics, but extended to infrastructure too. Amy began researching and developing an archival storage system from scratch, which is now accredited by the American Association of Museums.

So it can be shared with everyone…

After the ZooZeum opened, Amy’s work shifted from individual stories to envelope the site itself. She created two to behind-the-scenes programs and organized five on-site special events. She also presented the ZooZeum at three conferences, including an international on-line audience, and three podcasts. Each program, event, conference and podcast succeeded in achieving zoo education’s primary mission – connecting our guests with zoo resources. At a recent meeting in Saint Paul, the education staff from the Lincoln Park Zoo raved about Amy’s ZooZeum presentation – from three months ago! They have spoken with her since, are still in awe and clamoring to do the same at their site.

For the purpose of giving back…

As far as we know, there is no other zoo exhibit like the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum. It is unique and one-of-a-kind. It is also interesting to think how saving an organization’s history can be viewed as a progressive step forward. Amy Stephens not only guided that process, she inspired others to join in the vision, to donate their personal affects, to give their time, and to become stewards of their own resources. The ZooZeum presents memorable stories of our organization’s growth within the context of our community’s history. She answers to the unofficial title of Zoo Librarian, but perhaps a more fitting one is Zoo Historian. We should honor Amy Stephens’ passion and commitment to the Oklahoma City Zoo by recognizing her as Employee of the Year.


(Press Release) The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden proudly announces Amy Stephens, Naturalist Instructor Supervisor as the 2011 Ralph D. Harris Employee of the Year. The Employee of the Year award is selected each year by the Zoo’s Employee Recognition Committee and management staff.

Amy teaching zoo preschoolers. Photo by Todd Bridgewater.

A member of the Zoo’s Education team since 1998, Amy teaches a variety of programs throughout the year in addition to supervising the department’s part time birthday party, snooze and camp staff members and overseeing the Zoo’s collection of historical artifacts.

Amy was the sole impetus behind saving the historical building that is now the Patricia and Bryon J. Gambulos ZooZeum. Through her passion and motivation to preserve the Zoo’s history for generations to come the foundation for the ZooZeum came to life when it opened last spring. For nearly a decade Amy gathered historical information, objects and oral histories about the Zoo. This past November her effort to bring Gayla Peevey to the Zoo for the debut of the “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” ZooZeum exhibit resulted in providing a special holiday event for the community and creating another unforgettable moment in the Zoo’s history.  

“Amy is a true asset to our team,” said Dwight Scott, Zoo Executive Director/CEO. “She is extremely self-motivated and approaches all projects with heartfelt enthusiasm and a positive outlook. Amy is 100% focused on doing the best job possible for the Zoo, her peers and our patrons.” 

Amy brings many of her personal passions to her job. She supports animal welfare and co-developed the Zoo’s internal certification program for animal training and its curriculum. An advocate of life-long learning, Amy shares this passion with staff and volunteers by maintaining the Zoo’s library. Working closely with staff she keeps the library’s collection current allowing them access to information on present zoo practices and research. She is also an engaging speaker and often speaks in public forums about the Zoo.

Aside from her Zoo duties, Amy is an award-winning author. Her book “Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959” (c2006 Arcadia Publishing) was awarded as an Outstanding Publication by the Oklahoma Museum Association. She also maintains membership in with the National Association for Interpretation and the Oklahoma Museum Association. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Oklahoma Christian University and a master’s degree in Instructional Media from the University of Central Oklahoma. She and her husband Mike reside in Edmond, Oklahoma.


Amy Stephen’s job profile is featured on the Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) Explore blog


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Baby Chimp Survives and Thrives

Sweet Baby Siri. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens

Baby Siri had a rough start to life; malnourished and missing one arm.  She is now thriving.  I was fortunate to photograph Siri on the last day of her hand-raising.  This article is republished, with permission, from ZooSounds, Winter 2011.  ~Amy

Siri the Survivor

By Amy Dee Stephens

             The scene at Sunset Zoo went something like this:

            “Congratulations, she’s a healthy.” 

            “Whew,” responded the primate staff.

            “Whew” because they only realized that the mother chimpanzee was pregnant about 6-weeks before delivery.  This was not a faulty oversight…it was shock!  No one dreamed the 56-year-old female was still of child-bearing age.

            The mother was very attentive, protective and nursed regularly.  But seven months later, it was clear that something was wrong.  Siri was still tiny.  Testing revealed that the mother’s milk lacked the nutrients of a younger female, and Siri was starving.

            After diet modifications failed, Sunset Zoo asked the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan for help.  Oklahoma City Zoo was selected as the facility equipped to accommodate Siri’s needs. Just two years ago, the Great EscApe team successfully hand-raised and introduced baby Zoe to their troop. 

       “We are building our reputation as a surrogate facility,” said Robin Newby, Great Escape keeper.  “Chimp dynamics can be difficult, but our troop already proved that they can accept a baby.”

            When Siri arrived inOklahoma City, she was 8-months-old and just 3 ½ pounds.  Genetic tests, donated by Harvard, revealed the surprising news that other than malnutrition and lack of muscle mass, her organs were working fine and she had no mental disabilities. 

            For the next four months, Siri had 24-hour care.  Staff and volunteers initially had one focus—feed that baby! 

            It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  Siri had no interest in food; staff described it as an aversion to eating.  A feeding tube helped her get calories, but the challenge was to teach Siri how to feed herself.

            “She didn’t know why she had no interest in food,” said Newby.  “We made ‘happy food vocals.’ It’s like a high-pitched hoot that chimps make when they’re eating.  We did that and ate lots of fruit in front of her, trying to get her excited about food.  That’s how she finally learned what ‘hungry’ meant.”   

            To complicate matters more, a troop member unintentionally injured Siri.  Siri reached toward a chimp through a 2-inch gap in the mesh that separated her from the adult chimps.  A female grabbed Siri’s arm and it detached at the elbow.

            “Siri had no muscle mass,” said Newby.  “A normal infant wouldn’t have been seriously injured, but this baby was too malnourished.  Siri’s a fighter.  She survived the injury and just got stronger.”     

Siri photo by Amy Dee Stephens

           As Siri’s strength improved, the staff began physical therapy to help her overcome her missing forearm.  Climbing on a jungle gym made of PVC pipe and ropes helped Siri build muscles, balance, and learn to rely more on her feet.      

            Teaching Siri independence proved to be the hardest feat for staff, however. 

“In the wild, baby chimps are never put on the ground or left alone, but a surrogate mother would not hold her all the time. Siri needed to be okay with being on own her own sometimes,” said Newby.  “We started walking away from her some during our daily routine; and she didn’t appreciate it. We had to use tough love, because it was hard to hear her whimpering for us, but we knew this was what she needed to become the best chimp she could be.”   

            When it was time for Siri to meet her new chimp family, staff again had to practice tough love.  Introducing chimps is risky in a regular situation, but trusting tiny Siri with an adult was nerve-racking for the staff.  Fortunately, they knew the troop well enough to have several backup plans. 

            Chimp introductions begin with one member at a time.  If all goes well, the two chimps spend time together to build up trust, and then another chimp is added into the mix. 

           The primate staff had three female chimps in mind who might make a good surrogate mother for Siri.  Introductions to Cindy and Abby went fine, but neither seemed to show interest in nurturing an infant.  The third female, Kito, went right over to comfort Siri.  Newby said she had “the baby instinct.”  Ironically, Kito was the very female who injured Siri’s arm in an effort to reach her through the window.                 

            Since then, other troop members, including Mwami, the dominant male, have met Siri. Despite some of the usual “family politics,” the introductions have gone well and eventually all eight chimps will be on exhibit together.     

            Zoe and Siri play so actively together that most people don’t even notice Siri’s missing limb.  Three times each day, Siri drinks a bottle of infant formula through a customized mesh hole at the building.  She is never expected to be large chimp because of her early nutritional delay, but staff are proud to say that she is independent, playful and acting like a normal chimp.  

            “Working with animals is a lot about psychology,” said Newby.  “We have to be very in tune with our animals, and anticipate what their reactions might be to a situation.  We felt confident that Siri would blend well with our troop and that the chimps would help her adjust.”



Filed under Published Article Announcement, Zoo