Where else can you go into the mists of a tropical deciduous rainforest, emerge into the expansive swath of African grasslands, and then minutes later climb the mountain ranges of Southwest China? If you said the Blank Park Zoo, then you’ve earned points which are good at their commissary, for maybe a piece of squash! This week on #thedeliciousstory, I visit with Jessie Lowry and John Krogmeier about the day-to-day feeding and care of the wild animals at Blank Park, and all the back-end food acquisition required to keep everyone healthy. Later in the interview, Jessie helps debunk some common zoo myths and explains how zoos and the mission of wildlife conservation go hand-in-hand. And of course, there are memorable meal stories, involving pesky penguins and a ravenous boa constrictor, so listen in!
In prepping for this interview, I was reminded of a childhood memory, a zoo visit at some time in 1968 and somewhere in the south. We were watching as elephants stood near a fence which was quite close to the people gathered to watch them. The animals were so near that one person was able to offer up pink Kleenexes which the elephant grabbed with her trunk and placed in her mouth. The activity went on for several minutes with onlookers continuing to watch. I imagine there was a sign near that said, “Don’t feed the animals,” and this someone not only disregarded the signage but added a terrible degree with the Kleenex. This kind of thing still happens today occasionally, as seen in the occasional headline story of such zoo incidents.
That memory serves as an important reminder that the zoo is a place where wild animals are cared for by humans, and patrons are privileged to have the opportunity to view and learn more about them. And today zoos have stepped up their role, from caretakers of wild animals to offering excellent and exciting exhibits that are safe for both the animals and visitors. But this is an ongoing challenge to balance. And now more than ever, zoos are the conduit to species protection. By working hard to help facilitate conservation efforts, zoos also offer education to the public about habitats and species at risk. To be sure, the zoo is a thrilling destination for families, but the goal is “fun with a purpose,” as Jessie Lowry explains.
A CHANGING CLIMATE, A CHANGING ZOO
As recently as the 1980s, when we frequently took our young children to the Blank Park Zoo, I focused more on the entertainment aspect for our outings. These days as we are bringing our young grandchildren, I’m more keenly aware that many of the exhibits display information about species near extinction and habitats which are almost gone. The modern zoo is no longer just a place to see some of the world’s animals: it may be the last hope for survival for many of them.
The Blank Park website provides an informative timeline of Blank’s evolution. Originally funded by a gift from A.H. Blank and land donated by the city of Des Moines, the zoo opened its gates in 1966. Attendance grew steadily. In the 1980s the zoo underwent major renovations, and in 1987 achieved accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Blank is one of only 230 zoos to have earned this designation, and the only AZA zoo in Iowa. You’ll better understand the significance of this accreditation as Jessie explains what is involved in maintaining operations, and what it means for the zoo’s mission. You’ll learn the steps required to achieve the distinction and the ethical commitment that accredited zoos maintain to assure the genetic diversity of the species in their care.
The most recent birth of a black rhino at Blank Park was made possible due in part to their AZA accreditation. As a result of zoo staff’s hard work, we enjoy the cute webcam experience of this new baby rhino at the Blank Park website – but more importantly, we learn about the immediate risks of this animal’s extinction in the wild.
A MEMORABLE FEAST AT THE ZOO
One of the many popular experiences during a visit to the zoo is feeding times for the animals. We can vicariously feel the joy of the sea lion’s, for example, when staff offers up fish as the sea lions shoot out of the water to grab their treat. Eating can be a great connector for visitors, showing us our relationship to all the other animals of the world. We all need to eat, and the pleasure of eating is something we can understand.
The requirements to feed so many animals at Blank Park can seem daunting, but John explains their system to us and how the dedicated staff not only keep everyone well fed but are sure to introduce variety to the animals. Did you know that there is a garden on site to help produce some of the food used at the zoo? That was a surprise to me.
You’ll get a kick out of John’s story of the picky penguin who has to have his food offered just so, or there’s a price to be paid by the feeder. And you’ll understand Jessie’s knee-jerk responses when she tells of her experiences feeding the boa constrictor!
SUPPORT THE ZOO AND SUPPORT CONSERVATION
Blank Park is a jewel for the community of Des Moines, one that would not be possible without the support of donors and the many volunteers who help to keep the zoo in operation. Jessie describes several of the ways people can support the zoo and get involved in the broader mission of conservation efforts.
Fun and activity are not limited to the general admission hours at Blank Park. Jessie describes just a few of the popular upcoming events including the Zoo Brew that begins in June, featuring live music, summer brews, and a unique opportunity take in the scenery and the animals in the park after hours. There is also her favorite annual event, the Monarch Festival in September.
There is a full calendar of educational and entertainment opportunities offered at Blank Park each year. We are fortunate to have this destination amenity in our fair city. But today, more than ever, we need zoos, and in particular accredited zoos like Blank Park, to help meet the growing crisis of endangered species and shrinking habitats. Remember, when we support the zoo, we are also supporting our planet’s history, as well as the future.