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Explore your wild side at the Louisville Zoo

August 06, 2008
Gas prices got you down? Don't know of any way to beat the heat? Think affordable family fun is a thing of the past? Well, if you're in need of some welcome distractions, look no further than your own backyard. Residents of Crawford, Floyd and Harrison counties will be pleased to learn that there are plenty of interesting places to visit within the tri-county area that don't require a lot of money for admission or traveling. In a new weekly column, the Clarion News will feature places that you can take your family for a good time on the cheap. This week we'll be featuring the Louisville Zoo.

While Louisville is certainly the furthest we've ever asked our viewers to drive in our "Easy on the Pocket" series, the extra miles are more than made up for with a chance to see a modern menagerie of animals upclose and personal at the Louisville Zoo.

With the next closest zoo being two hours away, in Evansville, the Louisville Zoo offers a rare opportunity for the people of Crawford, Harrison and Floyd counties to see species they won't get to see anywhere else.

Asian Elephant Punch, African Elephant Mikki and her son, Scotty, pose for the camera. (Photos Courtesy of Kara Bussabarger)
Many local Hoosiers have already taken advantage of this fact. As of 2007, the Louisville Zoo had 16,307 Indiana residents with memberships. The estimated attendance from Crawford, Harrison and Floyd counties for last year was 2,058, 9,186 and 29,070, respectively.

Entering its 39th year, the zoo has become Louisville's number one non-profit tourist attraction, with an ever-increasing attendance level that shattered previous records last year with 818,000 visitors. That number could be even higher this year.

While most of you reading this are probably aware of the zoo's existence, there may be some recent developments and fun facts you're not familiar with.

For example, did you know …

•That the Louisville Zoo is one of six institutions in the world to house a captive breeding program for the extremely rare black-footed ferrets?

•That the Louisville Zoo leads the worldwide effort to conserve the white-throated ground dove at the request of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In 2006, the zoo had the first captive birth of a white-throated ground dove in the world?

This male lion opens wide with a great yawn as it relaxes in the shade.
•That the zoo is home to the oldest male gorilla in North America, Timmy, who is 49 years old?

•That the curator of ectotherms at the zoo, Bill McMahan, is the foremost expert in the world on Cuban Crocodiles, the most endangered crocodile on the planet?

•That the Louisville Zoo is the only zoo in North America with Woolly Monkeys?

•That the zoo is now home to Mojo, Nascar driver Tony Stewart's former pet Patas Monkey?

You can thank Kara Bussabarger, public relations manager for the Louisville Zoo, for compiling all these interesting facts. Bussabarger, a current resident of Corydon and 1994 graduate of North Harrison High School, has had her hands full promoting the zoo and keeping up with the happenings of its 1,300 animal residents. Despite the workload, she wouldn't trade it for the world.

"I've always been an animal lover," Bussabarger said, confessing that two Boston terriers reside at her home.

It's Bussabarger's job to give a voice to the animals and to promote the zoo's mission of bettering "the bond between people and the planet."

Bussabarger said the animals at the zoo are not just there to provide entertainment for guests.

Amber the Orangutan makes a goofy face for the guests of the zoo.
"The animals here (at the zoo) serve as ambassadors for the animals in the wild," Bussabarger said, adding that a "majority of these animals don't have a 'wild' to go back to."

The zoo offers a safe haven for many endangered or threatened species who have seen their natural habitats destroyed by human activity while educating people on the plight of these animals and offering ways in which they can help.

The biggest attraction at the zoo right now is their little celebrity, Baby Scotty. Scotty was born on March 18, 2007, and became the first elephant to be born at the zoo and in Kentucky. While nearly the size of the average adult human, Scotty is still dwarfed by his mother Mikki and "Aunt" Punch, the 39-year-old Asian Elephant that lives with Mikki and Scotty.

If baby animals are your thing, make sure you check out the baby Siamangs in the Islands exhibit. Siamangs are tailless apes native to Southeast Asia. Zoli, Zalin and Sungai are three orphaned Siamangs the zoo has taken on itself to hand-raise. This is another first for the Louisville Zoo as they are the only zoo in the world who has ever attempted to raise this many Siamangs by hand.

The newest exhibit at the zoo that is quickly gaining popularity is the Alice S. Etscorn Tiger Tundra, where guests can now watch Amur tiger training demonstrations that originally took place "behind-the-scenes."

The daily training sessions, which occur at 10:45 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., give people a really upclose view of the animal, Bussabarger said. There may be fewer sessions on days that are extremely hot as the tigers are not acclimated to extreme heat.

During the demos, zookeeper Angela Johnson opens a sliding door that reveals only a chain link fence to separate the keeper from the animal. For safety reasons, guests are kept another six feet back outside of an enclosed gated area, but the feeling of even being that close to a tiger is still exhilarating.

Johnson feeds the tigers small meat treats while having them perform basic tasks, such as raising up on their hind legs and crouching down low. The training is focused on operative conditioning and positive reinforcement. The whistle that Johnson uses when the Tiger does something she wants signifies "yes." The tiger is then rewarded for the action by a piece of meat, but not always. This method teaches the tiger to respond to the whistle in the anticipation of the treat, even if there is no treat readily available.

While Johnson handles the tiger, fellow zookeeper Sam Clites works the microphone and explains the training process as well as giving some background information on the Amur tigers.

The Amur tigers, formerly known as Siberian, are named for the Amur River, around which the species originally lived. It is a more accurate name than "Siberian," which covers a much broader area, Clites tells the audience.

The two Amur tigers at the zoo are Sinda, a 16-year-old female, and the newly acquired Sasha, an 8-year-old male. Sasha is still currently in quarantine. The zoo quarantines any animal received from another zoo for at least 30 days before introducing it into an exhibit. This allows the zookeepers to observe the animal's behavior and see if it has any behavioral problems or physical ailments.

Every animal goes through an adjustment process when it is moved from one zoo to another, Clites said. The time for adjustment varies for each individual animal. For example, it may take months before Sasha trusts the zookeepers enough to even approach the training area.

However entertaining it may be for the public, the training of the tigers is not just for fun. It serves a very real purpose.

"The training is for the health of the animals, to check them out," Bussabarger said.

Illustration by Alisha Sonner
She elaborated by pointing out how the trainer makes the tiger stand up so they can check its undercarriage and to see if it winces in pain when performing different actions.

The Tiger Tundra is part of the larger Glacier Run project, a $25-million endeavor the zoo is undertaking. Glacier Run has a 2010 target date set for completion. The zoo has already raised $17 million for the project and needs another $8 million for the next two years.

The Tundra is phase three in the plan. The previous phases included the Gateway to Glacier Run and the Splash Park, an aquatic playground where kids and parents alike can cool off.

When completed, Glacier Run will be a home to polar bears, sea lions and sea otters, as well as other arctic birds and animals. There are even plans for a special program that will allow guests to have an "in-water experience" with the sea lions.

For those looking to visit the zoo this summer, Bussabarger recommends coming early when the zoo opens at 10 a.m. Not only will you avoid larger crowds, but the cool of the morning means the animals will be more active. Also the Twilight Nights, which end in September, are good times to attend when the zoo is open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On the rest of the days, the zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Labor Day.

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Adults (12-59) • $11.95

Children (3-11) • $8.50

Children (2 & under) • FREE

Seniors (60+) • $9.95

Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more.

Contact the Group Sales Dept. at 502-238-5348 at least 72 hours prior to your visit.

For more information: www.louisvillezoo.org.

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