Zoo's Party for the Planet continues Sunday

Liam Conroy, left, a student zookeeper, hold one of the zoo's gopher tortoise for Katherine, 9, center and Jackie Wilson, 6, during the Party for the Planet at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville Saturday. Jo Thomas, a student zookeeper, is at right.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.

Brutus the American alligator, Webster the Asian small-clawed otter, Zeus the ocelot and the other animals of the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo had some guests over for a party on Saturday.

The zoo hosted its fourth annual Party for the Planet, which continues today from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Zoos across the country are participating in the party, sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which celebrates Earth Day with family-oriented animal-related education, along with games and activities promoting environmental conservation.

Despite what initially seemed like a low turnout, Tarah Jacobs, the conservation education specialist at the zoo, was not deterred.

“Any time we get people out to the zoo to learn more about the animals, I’m never disappointed,” she said. The number of people attending eventually did shoot up around noon, with some of the zookeepers estimating about 100 people in attendance.

“As long as at least one person leaves (knowing) one thing that helps the environment, that’s our goal,” said Margaret Johnson, animal technology student at Santa Fe College.

Senior students of the Santa Fe Animal Technology Program, which trains animal specialists like zookeepers, ran the Party for the Planet activities. They set up tables around the zoo with coloring books, animal masks, stamps and games for children.

Kids gathered around, learning how to attract butterflies and moths to their backyard, examining bald eagle feathers and listening to presentations from the zookeepers about the animals there.

Student zookeepers Joy Luzania and Emily Rooney sat at a table with cards depicting various animals, playing a game with two small girls. They asked the girls what animal needs to take regular dust baths. The girls pointed to a picture of a cat. Luzania and Rooney told them it was the chinchilla, which bathes in dust to keep its fur healthy by absorbing oils into its skin.

Other attractions included an informational display about FrogWatch USA, a citizen science program where individuals record the calls of local frogs and toads and submit the data to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There was also a presentation from the Seafood Watch Program about buying eco-friendly seafood that was harvested in a sustainable way.

A focus of the party was on conservation efforts for species like the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo from Papua New Guinea, located off the coast of Australia. “There are ways people can help,” said zookeeper Alex Sharkey. The goal is to spread awareness and shift attitudes in favor of conservation, which can even reach Papua New Guinea, where the tree kangaroo is unsustainably hunted, she said.

The animal encounters looked to be the most popular activity on Saturday. Jethro the baby alligator was popular in particular, with families lining up to get close and touch him. Geckos, legless lizards, snakes and other reptiles were also brought out.

It wasn’t just children who learned new things Saturday. Some parents said that they had benefited as well.

“I think it’s really informative,” said adult Laci Oleson. “I even learned stuff today.”

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