Wishing a happy birthday to zoo

Baltimore animal park marks its 130th year with treats and free weekend admission

March 05, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

The polar bears did champion backstrokes, then lazily lumbered ashore. A leopard curled up in the sun. The penguins waddled in unison. The new baby chimpanzees, all tiny sweetness, had the cuteness market cornered.

And thousands of human creatures gawked, pointed and squealed yesterday at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

The zoo, which turns 130 this year, threw itself a birthday bash yesterday, celebrating with free admission, scores of zoo-themed cakes, music, party hats, icy treats for the polar bears and a pat on the back from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Despite the wind and cold, people began lining up almost two hours before gates opened, and by the end of the day, zoo staff counted more than 10,000 visitors.

As they moved through the 160-acre campus, the camera-toting and stroller-rolling masses created traffic jams at the most popular exhibits and produced a symphony of "aahs" and "oohs."

"Do you see?" was possibly the most popular expression of the day, followed by "He's moving!" and "I'm cold."

The crowd pressed in and cheered when the polar bears emerged and loped over to eat their birthday "cakes" -- frozen layers of lard, fish, produce and Gatorade topped with smelt.

"Look how nice they're sharing," a mother cried to her child as the two bears ate side by side.

"Awesome! Gigantic!" said Shakir Mitchell, 13, who was there for the first time with a group from the Boys' Home Society in Baltimore. He was standing near the polar bear tank when a bear's huge, padded foot floated into view.

Across the park in the Africa exhibit, Darlene Williams, 49, of Baltimore was craning upward and hooting.

"This giraffe is really wild," said Williams, who had brought her 6- and 9-year-old grandsons and had worn a leopard-print coat for the occasion.

The giraffe peered over the top of the wall, extended its big, purple tongue and slobbered.

"It's almost like the giraffe from Toys R Us," she said, giggling.

Traffic was thick inside the chimpanzee forest. The zoo has three baby chimpanzees who were born this year, and every time they twitched the crowd sighed.

"Aren't they sweet?" said Linda Schoene, 63, of Towson. "They look like you want to just take them home."

The zoo, the third-oldest in the nation, opened in 1876. At that time, it housed about 17 species -- including deer, monkeys, bears, wolves and a three-legged duck -- and focused almost exclusively on entertainment.

Today, the zoo is home to nearly 200 species and the institution's mission emphasizes conservation and education, said spokeswoman Lainie Contreras.

Financial woes led the zoo to shut down some exhibits and reorganize several years ago. It was bailed out of trouble primarily by the state, and subsequently changed its name in 2005 from the Baltimore Zoo to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

The zoo's $11 million annual budget comes largely from the state but also from the city and private donations, Contreras said. Last year, the zoo underwent a $1.3 million renovation, and administrators say they hope their financial struggles are behind them.

The zoo, which had been closed January and February, reopened with some new and updated features. A giant slide for kids, which had been down for repairs, is back in business. A red ruffed lemur exhibit just opened, and as the weather warms, the zoo's flamingos will migrate to a new exhibit and visitors will have a chance to hand-feed giraffes.

The party continues today -- the birthday festivities are over, but admission is free again. The zoo, located in Druid Hill Park, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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