Ariz. zoo with ocelots, cougars, bobcats is major tourist attraction

Tucson boasts state’s second largest tourist attraction

By Lee Allen, Inside Tucson Business
Published on Friday, December 11, 2009

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum entices visitors from around the world with the promise of “a new discovery with every visit.” For a tourist attraction that’s been around since 1952, staff and volunteers work hard to stay true to their promise.

“We’re open 365 days of the year, no exceptions,” says Visitor Services Supervisor Linda Meschino. “We get about half a million visitors annually, making us the second-most popular attraction in Arizona after the Grand Canyon.”

With 300 different species of animals and 1,200 species of plants on 21 developed acres in Tucson Mountain Park, they’ve come a long way from a few desert-dwelling animals in concrete cages on the far western outreaches of Tucson. Print this story

“With two miles of pathways traversing desert terrain, this isn’t a static museum. It begs interaction and involvement on the part of visitors and our efforts at improvement are on-going. Some of our older exhibits are suffering from aging issues, so we’re making them newer, bigger, and better — always adding new things because that’s what brings people back for repeat visits,” says Meschino.

Founded as a private, non-profit organization dedicated to Sonoran Desert conservation, the museum is more than just a fun place for tourists and families to visit, it’s also a place to learn and inspire.

“Unlike any other museum in the world” reads one advertisement. Another printed inducement touts the Desert Museum as “a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all in one place.”

The museum’s mission is “to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.”

The membership brochure advises: Regardless of where people live, we seek to inspire them to become better stewards of the environment.

Volunteer docent Aubrey Mendelow says, “Our mission statement has always gotten me in the gut because it’s literally what I try to do every day, working to convince others to do a bit more to live in harmony with our natural world.”

Mendelow, originally from South Africa, has been a guide and teacher for three years. She is one of 200 docent helpers (along with 300 volunteers) who assist the professional staff of 65 in keeping the doors open and the crowds enthused.

The current economy has impacted, but not injured, day-to-day operations.

“We’ve seen the effect of that and there’s been a numerical drop in visitors, but it hasn’t seriously hurt us. While first-time visitor numbers may be down, we have a lot of loyal members and they are our core audience,” Meschino says.

If out-of-state visitors are fewer this year, it’s difficult to tell it by counting the vehicles in the museum’s parking lot. License plates read like a road atlas with just about every state represented.

Recent and current 21st century upgrades include a new theater for daily live animal programs as well as a new art institute, something called a Coati Kid Tree House, a Labyrinth Garden so new it’s still a work in progress, an expanded otter exhibit, a planned Digital Library for use as an interactive multimedia educational tool, as well as updates to an antiquated 1986 version of the black bear exhibit. Add to that list the Life on the Rocks exhibit (actually 20 separate exhibits that make up the entity and 30 species of animals immersed within that particular feature).

Check out Cat Canyon for a chance to spot a bobcat or an ocelot. Walk into and through the Earth Sciences Center, a limestone cave complete with stalagmites, stalactites, and a collection of regional minerals and gemstones. No visit is complete without a walk-through the aviary where 40 species of native birds live together in the sanctuary. And if hummingbirds are your thing, they have a separate aviary where the curious critters frequently whisk past your head or hover directly in front of you. For the large animal lover, there are mountain lion, Mexican wolf, whitetail deer, and bighorn sheep exhibits.

Through February, the Desert Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admission is at 4:15 p.m.). The entrance fee is $13 for adults, $4.25 for children and kids 5 and younger get to view the wonders for free. Military discounts are offered and members receive unlimited free visitation.

Operations and future growth are funded entirely from admission fees, memberships, contributions and grants. Membership categories and benefits vary and range from a Coati Club for youngsters 6-12 ($25) to a Gold level membership ($1,200) that also includes an invitation to a private reception with the museum’s executive director.

Biz Facts

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

2021 N. Kinney Road

(520) 883-2702

Lee Allen is a Tucson-based freelance writer.


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Kansas City Zoo began with 4 lion cubs from circus

Posted on Fri, Dec. 11, 2009

KC Zoo marks centennial by looking ahead

The Kansas City Star

Just ending its first 100 years of evolution, the Kansas City Zoo — bigger, more energetic, but ever more hungry for funds — is looking ahead.

Its birthday is officially Sunday (more on that later), and the Swope Park institution is celebrating a good year of more attendance, more Friends of the Zoo memberships and more visitor satisfaction.

And with next spring’s return of a polar bear exhibit and penguins on the way in 2012, more good news is surely due to floe — er, flow — in.

Meanwhile, it was a more political animal that the Friends leadership voted this week to introduce — a new political action committee to raise money for the care and influencing of lawmakers in Jefferson City.

The private Friends of the Zoo organization, which manages the publicly owned animal park under contract with the city, wants ultimately to capture their own tax-revenue stream away from City Hall’s perennial budget pressures.

Cutbacks in the city budget forced the zoo to make do with just $3.1 million from the city this year.

“We are going to have to take drastic steps if we cannot secure funding for the zoo from the city,” said Carol Hallquist, Friends chairwoman. “We have animals to feed.”

More of them all the time. From the first four lion cubs acquired from a circus in 1909, the menagerie has grown to more than 1,000 animals.

Meanwhile, the zoo is experiencing a renaissance.

Attendance climbed back to more than 500,000 this year, up 13 percent from last year through October. Officials are projecting 600,000 visitors next year, primarily on the strength of the polar bear’s debut slated for the spring.

Dues from Friends of the Zoo memberships are up 15 percent, and the goal is to increase that by 16 percent next year. Customer satisfaction, measured through visitor surveys, also has improved in recent years.

The zoo has also been successful in raising millions of private dollars, which resulted in a carousel and a new front entrance, among other things. The $8 million penguin display to open in 2012 also will come from private money.

Smoky, shaky start

It’s a long way since its opening, which the zoo’s own history dates to Dec. 13, 1909.

A 1909-1910 report of the park board says the same thing, as does a zoo brochure that appears to be from the 1930s. This week the Kansas City Council’s resolution honoring the zoo’s 100th birthday said Dec. 13.

But old newspaper clips in park department archives show the zoo’s first century started off with a problem.

The park board had to delay the opening of the original zoo building to fix a faulty heating system that was filling its basement with smoke.

The first animals — those little lions — did not move in until nearly Christmas, and it was not until Dec. 27, 1909, that city comptroller Gus Pearson declared the new zoo in Swope Park open to visitors.

“But we have not much in the way of exhibits to show them,” Pearson acknowledged then. “The big place looks dreary with its array of empty cages, and if people who volunteered to contribute animals and birds will begin sending them in, they will be appreciated.”

A “soft opening,” as marketing folks today would say.

In the early days, that 190-by-90-foot building — which this past spring was refitted into an indoor rain forest — contained the entire zoo.

At first the collection was little more than a couple of buffalo, a fox, a wolf, a wildcat, a few monkeys and some birds.

Now the place is just over 200 acres, including its widely acclaimed and widely sprawling African exhibit.

But why quibble if Dec. 13 is not the true anniversary?

“We’ve been celebrating for almost a year now,” said Kathy Smith, head of the zoo’s centennial committee.

Tired of lean seasons

Funding for daily operations has been a challenge, and now the zoo is bracing for the Kansas City budget season.

The Friends are asking for a $4 million “management fee” next year from a city budget that is facing a $62 million deficit. The Friends’ contract had called for the subsidy to reach $5.2 million in 2010.

This fiscal year, a shrunken city subsidy still accounted for nearly 40 percent of the zoo’s revenue.

The zoo’s director, Randy Wisthoff, wants the city to issue some of the remaining bond authorization to pay for projects ahead of the zoo’s professional accreditation review next year. Fixes are needed at the veterinary building, the elephant barn and the sea lion pool.

But the acting city manager, Troy Schulte, said this week he does not want to sell any more bonds — and incur more interest debt — during the city’s current budget crunch.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser and others argue the zoo is a regional asset that should be supported regionally and not just by Kansas City taxpayers.

While the zoo does benefit from suburban memberships and from earnings taxes paid by people who work in the city but live elsewhere, Kansas City zoo supporters hope for a taxing district someday like the ones that support the St. Louis and Denver zoos.

Kansas City Zoo officials are considering three fresh funding scenarios: a metropolitan zoo district, a zoo district limited to Kansas City or a county sales tax. All would require enabling state legislation and voter approval.

Hayley Hanson, head of the Friends board’s funding committee, estimates that a one-eighth-cent sales tax in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties could generate $17 million a year.

The new political action committee is seen as a first step toward making any of those things happen.

Money raised by the political committee would have to be kept separate from zoo operations and would be subject to state disclosure laws.

“We are looking at long-term strategies and what we can do to get out from under the city,” Hanson said. “We want to have funds raised to make sure that we can push our agenda forward.”

For now, Hallquist said the Friends of the Zoo are pleased that the animal park is showing measurable improvement even in tough times.

“We feel really great about the staff here and the leadership,” she said. “Our continued struggle will be financing the zoo and keeping it in the tradition that we know it can be for the next 100 years.”


What’s new at the zoo

* The original 1909 building, left, has been transformed into the Tropics exhibit, which opened earlier this year. It features several species of monkeys and other animals.

* A polar bear — just one, to start — will inhabit a new exhibit beginning next spring. The exhibit is designed to accommodate up to three bears, but Nikita, right, on loan from the Toledo Zoo, initially will have more than 9,500 square feet to roam all by himself.

* Friends of the Zoo is raising money in hopes of opening a penguin exhibit in 2012.


Today, Sunday at the zoo
* 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Free photo with Santa with a donation to Harvesters; Tropics building.


* 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Free admission

* 10 a.m.: Proclamation and plaque dedication; Tropics building.

* Noon to 2 p.m.: Cupcakes, animal and history presentations; zoo lobby.


@ Go to for a photo gallery.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4905 or send e-mail to


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Kansas zoo’s cold weather cats enjoying frigid temperatures

Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure is AZA-accredited.

Cool cats

By MICHAEL STRAND Salina Journal

Most animals live outdoors all the time — but if your regular outdoors is the African veldt, a Salina winter can be pretty brutal.

On the other hand, if your ancestors have lived in the high Himalayas for millions of years, single-digit temperatures are perfect.
How animals and their keepers deal with this week’s record-breaking low temperatures is “as varied as our species, and we have over 100,” said Sandy Walker, general curator at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure.

Most of the animals at least have an opportunity to get under shelter or indoors during frigid weather and “last night and the night before, everybody was snuggled in,” Walker said. “Most of the winter, most of the animals are out, but this is extreme cold.”

Salina’s low temperature dipped to minus 9 early Thursday, and the high Thursday afternoon was in the mid 20s.

Despite their bulk, rhinos are extremely sensitive to cold, Walker said, though many other African animals are fine with spending much of the winter outside.

Many others do more than tolerate the cold — they actually prefer it, Walker said.

Among them are the gray wolves, snow leopards, llamas, and — who’d have thought? — the Siberian tigers.

Bengal tigers, meanwhile, are native to India; one was out sunning in the 25-degree temperature Thursday afternoon, but the zoo’s white tiger was staying indoors.

“He’s saying, ‘I’m a white tiger, not a snow tiger,’ ” said Trisha McDonald, one of the zoo’s large carnivore keepers.

And though the zoo had just two visitors by late afternoon, McDonald and Walker said many of the animals are much more active in winter than in summer.

“Some are more active — others are busy just staying warm,” Walker said. “The snow leopards really like this — they’re from the Himalayas, the high Himalayas.”

“Winter is their season — it really is,” McDonald said of the gray wolves. “They have their puppies in the spring, and they’re old enough to join in the hunts by winter.”

The zoo’s wolves were up and about, running, climbing and leaping around their enclosure.

“In the summer, they’re hot — and spend most of their time indoors,” McDonald said. “In winter, they sleep out on the snow.”

With cold weather, the zoo increases the amount of food available, and Walker said keepers work to give the animals — especially those staying indoors — more enrichment activities to keep them from becoming bored.

The chimpanzee is one of the few animals that will actually play with the snow itself, Walker said, “though they really don’t like to go out in the cold. We have made them snow ice cream before.”

* Reporter Mike Strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by e-mail at


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Snow leopard dies at Virginia zoo

Natasha the snow leopard dies at Mill Mountain Zoo

Mill Mountain Zoo’s Natasha has left a legacy of memories and offspring.

By Kevin Kittredge
The Roanoke Times

Not only is the big Mill Mountain Zoo cat, who died this week of cancer, remembered by many, but she had kittens in 2003 and 2005. Natasha’s four offspring are now in zoos in Toledo, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Duluth, Minn.; and Des Moines, Iowa, said Dave Orndorff, Mill Mountain Zoo director and general curator.

Although snow leopards are an endangered species, it is not unusual for them to have numerous offspring in captivity, Orndorff said. “Given the right circumstances, they’re fairly prolific breeders.”

For a snow leopard, Natasha lived a long life — 16 years. Snow leopards seldom reach 12 years in the wild.

“She lived a lot longer than she would have anywhere else,” Orndorff said. “That speaks highly of the staff here.”

Snow leopards are native to central Asia, where they are generally found in higher elevations, including the Himalayas. They have short legs, muscular chests and soft, thick fur, including luxuriant tails, which they sometimes wrap around themselves for warmth. In the wild, they are opportunistic predators who are sometimes hunted in return by humans for their fur.

Natasha was a lifelong citizen of America. Born in 1993 at the Jackson Zoological Park in Jackson, Miss., she came to Mill Mountain in 1997.

So what kind of cat was Natasha?

A social one, who would come right up to the front of the cage when visitors were present, said Lisa Uhl, the zoo’s public relations manager. “She did love the attention.”

Former Mill Mountain Zoo Executive Director Beth Poff, now director of the Jackson Zoo, said Natasha was “the boss.”

“She was in charge of the exhibit at all times. She always had the attitude that ‘This is my exhibit, and you are a visitor.’ She was the boss, and a great mom.”

Zoo officials were unsure Thursday if Natasha would be replaced.

As for Natasha’s mate, Boris, Orndorff said the male cat is aware that something is different. But he doesn’t expect the 17-year-old cat to grieve for very long.

Snow leopards prefer to be alone, Orndorff said. “They’re solitary in the wild.”


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Born Free asks, "What’s going on at U.K. zoos?"

Zoo trouble

Published Date: 10 December 2009

IT is distressing to learn that measures to improve inadequate facilities at Edinburgh zoo have been “put on hold while the company tried to resolve financial issues” (your report, 8 December).

Licensing conditions imposed on the zoo require “off-show” areas for big cats to be upgraded “to ensure staff safety, hygiene and animal welfare are not compromised by further deterioration”, and the report says Edinburgh council “called for a ‘radical refurbishment or replacement’ of the food store and veterinary areas of the zoo”.

Edinburgh is regarded by the zoo community as one of its best, and is one of the main charitable zoos that refer to themselves as “progressive zoos”. If such major shortcomings exist at Edinburgh, it seems reasonable to ask what is going on in the other 400-plus licensed zoos around the United Kingdom.

Born Free Foundation
Horsham, West Sussex


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