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.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road
Lee Allen is a Tucson-based freelance writer.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org