Columbus Zoo show mixes lynx, other wild animals with domestics

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Cagey critters

Animals’ range delights crowds at zoo shows
Tuesday, December 29, 2009 3:16 AM

By Kevin Joy

Abby was already a jumping bean: The Jack Russell terrier mix, rescued from a Florida shelter, would leap constantly.

Perfect for jumping rope, her trainers thought.

Months of practice, driven by plenty of tasty rewards to indicate a job well-done, taught the 8-year-old ball of energy to hop on command.

The trainers later swung a rope next to the pooch.

Eventually, Abby learned to jump in time when the rope neared.

These days, when the wiry pup trots onstage to jump with trainer Julie Mutscher, a capacity crowd of 600-plus squeals with delight at the surprising sight.

No waaay!

Oh, my gosh!

Look! Look! Mommy, look!

The display represents just a fraction of the action during Animals on Safari, a live stage production introduced in the summer at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Conceived by Columbus native Joel Slaven, a former zoo volunteer who has become a trainer in Florida, the show is performed during busy periods, including the Wildlights display through Jan. 2.

The production — which stars more than 100 animals, including pigs and ducks, as well as fact-packed cameos that feature a capybara, a miniature horse and a Siberian lynx — also boasts a menagerie of domestic creatures (33 cats and 28 dogs).

“A lot of animals were picked for certain abilities we saw,” said trainer Erin Ford, 33. “They have so much potential.”

Many are mixed breeds.

More significant, almost all were adopted.

Between the oohs and aahs is a message: Shelter animals make good, obedient pets.

“This gives us the opportunity to walk the talk,” said Dale Schmidt, executive director of the zoo, noting that the show inspired him to train his rescued pug mix to fetch the newspaper.

The zoo could one day continue the Safari show in a permanent theater, he said.

The 15-minute performance moves at a gazelle’s pace: light and lively.

Ducks flap and waddle. Cats leap through windows and scamper to the top of a 13-foot platform, from which they leap off. Dogs engage in mischief, pulling down curtains and strewing items onstage.

The show represents one of the few in the nation to mix wild and domestic creatures, said Patty Peters, associate zoo director.

The interspecies mingling, though, is minimal — as seen when the arrival of a skunk spurs the other animals to exit.

Professional execution and comedic timing have made the show a hit.

The concept, to return in the spring, has a three-year contract in Columbus. Although the zoo provides shelter, the eight trainers (employed by Slaven) take responsibility for care and feeding.

The mastering of basic commands took months. Most of the cats and dogs were acquired last December, and the show wasn’t begun until July.

Trainers call the actions not “tricks” but “behaviors.”

Because many of the cats and dogs — and others, such as several potbellied pigs and a porcupine — simply dart across the stage, the “A to B” motion is taught slowly: first a foot, then another, then several more feet.

Other actions are more complex.

Tibbs, a male Dalmatian, lifts a leg as if urinating on a campfire. Cordy, a white boxer and the first animal adopted for the show, pretends to limp so as to receive a “bandage” (and a treat).

The diving cats have become popular, as audiences don’t often associate felines with performing.

The animals, in turn, seem to enjoy the limelight.

“A lot of them really feed off the crowd, the applause,” said trainer Jen Gaddy, 25.

Of course, she added, they also abandon their routines at times.

During a performance last week, Hubert the red kangaroo didn’t want to answer his cue: pushing an air-pumped prop to simulate the inflating of a flat tire.

He hopped away, uninterested.

Dogs have had their roles downsized because they couldn’t perform solo without wandering into the crowd.

Audiences don’t seem to mind the occasional snags.

Hayley Goodburn and Kristiana Gresham giggled throughout a recent show, excited about the opportunity to meet and pet some of the four-legged stars afterward.

Gresham, who has a 6-year-old Doberman named Cheyenne, was inspired to start her own regimen.

“How they trained those animals,” the 11-year-old Powell resident said, “is just amazing.”


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