Where the Wild Things Are:
Nighttime Activities at Zoos

October 30, 2010 No Comments

Anyone who has visited a zoo has a feeling. It’s the one where after you leave an exhibit or the park itself, you know you’re just about to miss something really cool. And once the lights are out and the gates are closed that’s when the zoo really comes alive. Zoologists will tell you the after-hours animal fun depends on whether an exhibit is nocturnal or not. But the people who plan evening events are working hard to make the zoo a lively place for humans — even if most of the animals are sleeping.
After all, being at the zoo is a bit exotic by nature. Wild animals live here. Exhibits simulate natural habitats from around the world. A lion or bear might roar in the distance. It’s a convenient safari of sorts. And at night, it’s a backdrop that’s entertaining in itself.
A Night at the Smithsonian
A showcase for the country, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has an impressive annual attendance of approximately 2.5 million. Still, the zoo sees evening events as a way to attract new people — and meet fundraising goals.
Among the zoo’s full schedule of events are Grapes with the Apes, a wine tasting; Boo at the Zoo, where kids can trick-or-treat; and Woo at the Zoo, a valentine-making event—all held after hours and its three most popular. “Sponsors often budget for certain holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween,” said Dan Pierron, special events manager.
“At first glance, many of our evening events don’t seem to have a tie to our living collection,” said Pierron. “But along with revenue generated through ticket sales and sponsorship support, we are able to excite guests about the animals, world-class research and excellence in animal care happening at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.”
Planning for evening events also involves coordinating with the animal care staff, especially if the party will be in an “animal area.” Staff also try and limit the disruption in animals’ schedules, too. “The animals’ welfare is of the utmost importance,” Pierron said.
A Continental Approach
Set on 11 acres within Hersheypark, ZooAmerica North America Wildlife Park in Hershey, Pa., also attracts visitors by its proximity to amusement park rides and chocolate tours. For zoo fans, though, its popular evening events offer thrills of a different kind.
Two nights a week, about 10 preregistered guests can take a “flashlight” tour of the zoo, said Dale Snyder, general curator. “They get to tour behind the scenes in our medical building, feed a few animals,” he said, “and get close to a number of animals in our education department.”
And on weekends around Halloween, the zoo hosts Creatures of the Night, where guests bring their own flashlights and can go through the entire zoo. “We set up animal encounters throughout the zoo,” he said, “and highlight nocturnal creatures.”
The zoo has also started hosting private parties. “We just booked our second wedding rehearsal dinner at the zoo and have a family reunion planned after closing,” he said.
During all after-hours events, he said, staff are throughout “critical areas” to act as security and give guests information and direction.” And some animals get to stay out late, so to speak. Snyder said the otters, lynx, martens, wolves, pumas, bears, and screech owls are in their exhibits an hour later.
Starting Traditions
At the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, N.Y., the after-hours events are crowd pleasing and anticipated by members and nonmembers alike. With an annual attendance of 345,000, the zoo sees its events as promoting goodwill in the community as well as cultivating donors, said Sarah Moore, director of development and membership.
Kids have something to look forward to with Zoo Boo during Halloween and Penguin Palooza, an ice-cream tasting in July. Also on the calendar are evenings that offer the novelty of being at the zoo without kids: Brew at the Zoo, a beer and wine tasting, and the Snow Leopard Soiree, a black-tie gala with cocktails, dinner and dancing.
At this year’s Snow Leopard Soiree, the Friends of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo honored Jerry and Mary Mathews, long-time board and committee members. “This is the first time we’ve honored anyone at this event and it was arguably the best one yet,” said Moore. “For the first time, we had a sell-out crowd, as there were a number of people who attended, sponsored the event or purchased tribute ads in the program to support the honorees.”
For tastings, restaurants and vendors donate the food and drinks as a way to showcase their businesses, and the zoo can keep the ticket price modest, so more people can afford to attend. And tastings allow guests to simply enjoy being at the zoo after hours. “There is plenty of time for guests to mingle and talk,” said Moore. “They are not stuck at a dinner table with a group of people they may or may not know, listening to long speeches.”
When there is live music, entertainers at the zoo are prepped in advance to be attentive to the animals. “If the music is too loud, it can disturb the animals,” said James Mahler, director of food. “Drums and horns are of particular concern, and we have to be certain the bands understand the environment they are playing in.”
And then there are the festive guests to also anticipate. “Some animals react strongly to costumes [at Zoo Boo], while others don’t care for the light-up toys we offer to the kids at this event,” said Mahler. “With these concerns in mind, there are some areas of the zoo that are off limits.”
For Reptiles Only
An America Zoo Association-accredited specialized zoo with approximately 40,000 visitors annually, Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland in Allenwood, Pa., knows its focus is on the “less-loved members of the animal kingdom” — reptiles and amphibians.
That said, its annual Flashlight Safari is an anticipated event around Halloween. “Reptiland presents special live shows each hour that focus on nocturnal animals and their adaptations,” said Laura Brennan, marketing coordinator. “Visitors walk around our indoor exhibit gallery with their flashlights, so they can see these nocturnal animals in their natural environment — after the lights go out.”
Its Wine and Jewelry Showcase in December also brings people, even the reptile squeamish, to the gift shop. “Locals are pleasantly surprised at the selection of jewelry we offer, not typical of a reptile zoo,” said Brennan. “This event definitely gives Reptiland a softer look.”
“Being a reptile zoo, we always have those people that are skittish about snakes and reptiles,” said Brennan, “which is often elevated by adding in the night-time factor.”
Next year, a new dinosaur exhibit opens, and Brennan said, the zoo is tossing around ideas for night-time activities, though there are no definitive plans yet. Another idea on the table is a family fun night, with face painting and touch opportunities with some animals.
Every day, the zoo always takes the well-being of its nocturnal animals seriously. “We are always careful about the amount of hours in a day that the lights are on in our exhibit gallery,” said Brennan. “Some of our more sensitive animals — frogs and geckos, for example — can become stressed by not having their typical amount of darkness.”
Open at Night Only
Billed as the world’s first wildlife park for nocturnal animals, Night Safari is open from half-past seven till midnight — so every day is an evening event at this zoo. Part of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Night Safari attracts more than 1.1 million visitors annually and is home to more than 1,000 animals from 115 species.
Though being open at night is routine, the zoo offers an active schedule of events to keep itself on people’s radar screen, said Isabel Cheng, director of sales.
October is a big month for the nocturnal zoo as well. “Annually, Halloween Horrors has become a signature event for Night Safari,” said Cheng. “The entire reserve is converted into a ‘park of horrors.’”
Indeed, there’s a Train of Terror ride for guests, not to mention the ghouls hiding amongst the trees awaiting passersby. Oh, and for foodies, there’s a frightfully good, spooky dinner at the zoo’s gourmet restaurant, Ulu Ulu Terrace, complete with Goblin’s Blood Mocktails and Death by Chocolate brownies.
After Halloween, the “train of terror” reverts back to the Gourmet Safari Express and offers candlelight dinners and fine wine, running between two to 12 times a month.
Evening events aren’t exclusive to Night Safari, though. Wildlife Reserves Singapore hosts about 15 events throughout its parks, which also includes the Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoo. Guests can attend Dinner with Penguins in the penguin exhibit, and many wedding dinner and corporate events are hosted at the Singapore Zoo’s Pavilion by the Lake and Forest Lodge.
“We are always looking for opportunities to introduce new experiences to our guests,” she said. “One plan in the works involves evening cocktails on our boats, which ply the Upper Seletar Resevoir, between two sections of the Singapore Zoo.”
Regardless of where the event is at, said Cheng, “The welfare of our animal collection is always our top priority.” That means if animal appearances are involved, these last no more than 20 minutes, to keep the animals from getting stressed out.
And for Halloween Horrors, she said, “scream-inducing activities take place away from the animals’ habitats to minimize any disturbance to them.” -

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