Tag Archives: Oklahoma City Zoo

Interview with Amy about “OKC ZOO: 1960-2013”

Thank you to fellow-writer, Regina Garvie, for posting this interview about my book.  Please visit her site to view the full interview—this is just her introduction.

A cool look at the OKC Zoo

Today I have the pleasure of featuring a different type of book on my blog!SCBWI Oklahoma member Amy Dee Stephens writes fiction, but is also the author of two books on the Oklahoma City Zoo. I got a chance to look at her book recently, and it’s a must-see for anyone who has interest in animals, Oklahoma history, or a first-class zoo’s transformation through the years.

From the book’s description: What started as a small menagerie in 1902 officially became Oklahoma City Zoo in 1903. Journey through the second half century of its illustrious history in Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960–2013. Meet the staff and animals and explore the exhibits that propelled it from a third-class animal facility to one of the best zoos in the United States. In the 1960s, its animal population exploded as knowledge of animal care improved. The zoo soon assembled the largest-known collection of hoofed animals. Later, a rare mountain gorilla named M’Kubwa stole newspaper headlines, a third leopard escaped, and the zoo met its first cheetah babies. The opening of Aquaticus in the 1980s “brought the ocean to the prairie” in the form of a dolphin and sea lion show. Elephants, however, remain the queen attraction at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 2011, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant baby, Malee, was a crowning achievement in its 110-year history.

Personally, I remember a lot of the changes that took place at the zoo, like when they built the Great EscApe when I was a kid, and the transformation of the big cat areas and new habitat for the elephants. It’s pretty dang great. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to check out our zoo – and maybe pick up a copy of Amy’s books while you’re at it!

Amy was nice enough to share a press release with me about her newest book, including an informative Q&A that I enjoyed reading. Hope you do too!

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Cute Baby Zoo Animals

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    Written by Amy Dee Stephens, January 2015 issue of Outlook Magazine

    “Awww!” It’s something you can’t help but squeal when you see baby animals, especially when at the zoo. Fuzzy chicks, playful elephants, even tiny turtles soften people’s hearts. Every birth that occurs at the Oklahoma City Zoo is extra cause for celebration, because many of the animals are so rare.

    “Every zoo birth is exciting,” said Candice Rennels, public relations manager. “It’s such a happy occasion when an endangered species is born because our animals are great ambassadors for their relatives in the wild.”

    Celebrity Babies

    Malee - photo by Andrea WrightThe most famous zoo baby is Malee the elephant. Her birth in 2011 was historic—the first elephant baby for Oklahoma City! The community fell in love with her, and visitor traffic increased by 150,000 people during her first few months. In December, she was joined by a sibling.

    This elephant cuteness has generated excitement since 2009 when their mother Asha, one of the Zoo’s adult female Asian elephants, began breeding. The public was apprised every step along the way, following Asha through her two-year pregnancy with Malee and her second calf due before the New Year.

    “An elephant birth is a significant event for our community. There is a strong connection between Oklahomans and our elephants,” Rennels said.

    Surrogate Successes

    Kamina - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

    Zoo babies have a large following, and people will follow their life stories for generations. The recent birth of a baby gorilla, Kamina, made international news when she went to the Cincinnati Zoo to be raised by a surrogate mother. Oklahoma City staff knew that Kamina would not do well with her birth mother, so a different gorilla troop was a better option.

    Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has earned the reputation as a surrogate zoo for chimpanzees. Recently, two different baby chimps were “adopted” and are now successfully living with their new troop.

    The zoo added another surrogate success to its list in November when an African Wild Dog had three puppies. The inexperienced mother showed lack of maternal care, so the staff removed the pups and arranged for a lactating domestic dog to feed and care for these genetically important pups. Lilly, a golden retriever from Kansas raised the three pups right along with one of her own until they all were weaned.

    Flocks of Babies

    Flamingo chick - photo by OKC ZooBeyond the famous babies, the zoo is host to all sorts of animal younglings. Raising a flock of flamingo chicks is a bi-annual project for the zoo’s bird keepers. Flamingo eggs are gathered up and incubated, and then the fluffy hatchlings are cared for until spring, when they are integrated into the flock. In this case, because of our native rat snake population our best option for our flamingos is to pull their eggs and hand-raise chicks.

    “We take the flamingo chicks on daily walks for exercise,” said curator Darcy Henthorn. “It’s intense work, but one of the coolest avian programs we participate in.”

    Baby lorikeets are also hand-raised, but for a different reason—they live in an exhibit that people walk through. “We’ve learned over time, that by hand-raising lorikeet chicks they become more friendly birds for our guests to feed and interact with,” said Holly Ray, zookeeper.

    Mating Matters

    Because of the zoo’s commitment to conservation, most births are well orchestrated. Breeding decisions for endangered species are made by specialized committees worldwide. Mating partners are determined by the individual’s DNA, current offspring in the gene pool, and whether zoos have room for a future baby.

    Rupert - photo by Gillian Lang

    A half-century ago, zoos had a different philosophy about breeding—have as many babies as possible! Why? First, the genuine fear of extinction resulted in a “baby factory” mentality. Second, selling surplus animals, often as pets, was a viable way of making money. Over time, those practices shifted to focus on better care for fewer animals.

    “We don’t have indiscriminate breeding anymore,” said Don Whitton, animal records technician. “You’d be surprised how few babies we actually do have during a year.”

    Last year, only a handful of reptiles and birds hatched babies, and only a dozen mammals were born. High-profile mammals, like Rupert the baby rhinoceros, generate the most interest. Occasionally a non-mammal baby makes headlines, such as the two Komodo dragon hatchlings who came to the zoo a few years ago. Although they aren’t huge yet—they will be, and visitors enjoy watching them grow.

    For the most part, pregnancy is a managed process, and staff members are prepared when a baby arrives. In extreme cases, such as the baby elephant births, fully-trained teams spend the night at the zoo, ready to help with delivery.

    Where’s The Nursery?

    African Wild Dog pups - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'AgostinoAnother change in practice was the elimination of the zoo nursery. Visitors really enjoyed looking through glass windows at rooms full of baby animals, but zoo professionals now advocate that offspring stay with their parents whenever possible. Every endangered species born into a zoo is part of a viable effort to conserve the species for the future.

    Technology and social media, such as cameras showing footage online, allows visitors to have the up-close experience they previously had at the nursery window, and news media keep the public informed of animal births. More exciting babies are on the horizon at the Oklahoma City Zoo—and zoo fans will have a front-row seat to view fluffy, hairy, scaly cuteness.

    “Zoo babies melt our hearts,” Rennels said. “More importantly, they are the future for endangered species.”

    Learn more about the Oklahoma City Zoo at www.okczoo.com

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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)

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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 http://www.okczooed.com/zoozeum-video-blog 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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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 http://www.wildlifedepartment.com 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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