Intrepid few attend zoo opening

Penguins, other birds greet rain-defying humans at the gate

March 14, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch

Alicianna Lifsey of Baltimore was not to be deterred, not by rain, chill or snapping winds. Dressed in a hooded red rain slicker, the 4-year-old meant to see animals, any animals, but particularly ostriches and elephants, she said, clutching a visitors' map of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

She and her father, Derrick Lifsey, were among the first intrepid spirits who showed up at Druid Hill Park Saturday morning in conditions better suited to touring the weatherproof confines of the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Maryland Science Center.

But those places were not having their season's opener Saturday, and the zoo was.

"Look, look, look," Derrick Lifsey said, pointing his daughter to the retinue of ambassador animals who had gathered at the front gate to welcome the first visitors. Three South African penguins and a couple of Indian runner ducks roamed freely as two ravens, Rise and Conquer, rode the arms of their handler with customary majesty.

"Cool, another penguin," Alicianna said, as one of the birds padded nearby for a better look at just what sort of a human would come out on a day like this.

Just as the gates opened, rain and gusts picked up, and temperatures held in the upper 40s. Delayed two weeks by winter weather even worse than this, the 2010 season was on at last. The zoo had been scheduled to open March 1, and the delay put it more than 10,000 visitors behind its annual attendance goal, compounding the impact of low attendance because of snow in December.

"We're just happy to have the gates open," said zoo President and CEO Donald P. Hutchinson, who was at the gate in full rain gear to greet the first guests. When he awoke Saturday morning in Towson, his power was out after a stormy night, and so he adjusted his expectations for the day accordingly.

"My goal was to open the door today, and anyone who walked through, it was a good day for us," said Hutchinson.

Beverly Roesler walked through, undaunted.

"I'm a senior citizen living in a retirement facility. If I don't get up and get out and see things, life is going to pass me by," she said. "I'm not going to let that happen because it's raining."

She had a stern word for the fellow in the ticket booth, however: "Those animals better be out today."

Most but not all of the animals were allowed out. Kevin Murphy, the assistant curator, said some animals do better in rain and wind than others.

Hoofed animals, for instance, can slip on slick turf or rocks and hurt themselves, so the zebras remained sequestered on opening day. As were the wart hogs, vulturine guinea fowls and the dik-dik, a small African antelope.

The elephants - three adult females, one adult male and, of course, the nearly 2-year-old boy Samson - were out, and entertaining visitors.

NeDene Rhone and her daughter, Brandi, of Glen Burnie, stood on the elephant viewing deck in the rain. They hadn't been to the zoo in years. So why today?

"The price, number one," said NeDene, referring to the discounted $5 admission all weekend - less than a third of the usual weekend $16 adult fee at the gate. "And loving animals."

The zoo, which has been struggling with financial difficulties in recent years, is going to have to count on much love for animals and for the 133-year-old institution. The year was off to a rough start even before yesterday's rainy opening.

February's double snowstorms hit the zoo hard, knocking down trees and damaging exhibits, particularly the African and Maryland marsh aviaries. Heavy snow brought down the stout poles that held the two wire-mesh aviary enclosures aloft.

No animals were killed or injured, but total damage to the zoo was estimated at $1.5 million, and officials are still trying to sort out how much of the toll will be covered by insurance and federal disaster assistance.

Hutchinson had been hoping this season would top the last four by 10,000 visitors with a total of about 360,000. But he worried about the lost time from delays: "You don't get this back," he said.

The zoo is counting on the appeal of a new attraction, a $2.6 million, one-mile minitrain, to boost attendance this year, but the winter delayed that opening to late May or early June.

On a damp opening day last year, the zoo drew about 1,000 people. The visitor total on Saturday was 38.

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