When my kids were little, we often purchased a zoo pass. It was a good investment, as we could visit several parks, year-round, for not much more than it cost for a family of four for one summer day’s visit.
Though we have many wonderful zoological parks in Ohio, the Akron Zoo was always my favorite for young children. Just far enough away to be an “excursion,” yet close enough that we didn’t waste a lot of time getting there, we could easily see all the animals in a morning or afternoon (or the whole day if we wanted) without coming home in complete exhaustion.
Now that the kids are older, I still feel that the Akron Zoo is an incredible “gem,” and this week I was able to listen to a mother-daughter team of zoo volunteers articulate exactly why.
Cuyahoga Falls resident Diana Ritchie and her 17-year-old daughter, Casey, spend much of their free time at the zoo. Diana has volunteered for three years, and this summer, Casey was interviewed and named one of the zoo’s 37 “Junior Interpreters,” working with kids two days a week.
A senior at Cuyahoga Falls High School, Casey hopes next year to become an Interpreter, a paid employee for the education program who facilitates birthday parties, handles animals (telling about them during “Animal Encounters”) and participates in other educational activities.
The thing Casey loves most about the zoo is meeting the people who come there, helping the children to learn and have a good time.
She explained, “If a little kid is upset about something, you can completely turn it around and make their experience better …” (by getting the child who has dropped his ice cream cone a new one, for example.)
Casey works at the “Touch Tank,” where she shows families the proper ways to interact with the stingrays, bamboo shark and horseshoe crabs in the tank. She also leads children through games about animals and the environment.
Diana loves how excited the kids get at special events.
“It’s fun to interact with them. The ‘Pirates and Princesses’ night is always fun, because they’re all dressed up and the adults and kids really get into it. I was a princess too,” she said.
Diana especially enjoys “Boo at the Zoo” each fall, because it is often a child’s very first dress-up/trick-or-treat experience.
As part of the Animal Enrichment Team, Diana volunteers once a month working with certain reptiles and birds.
“It’s supposed to be enrichment for the animals, but I think it’s my enrichment,” Diana laughed.
A former vet-tech, Diana changed jobs and was no longer working with animals. She filled that void at the zoo.
“I’ve always loved animals and, from the time Casey was little, I dragged her to every zoo I could get to. I’m a zoo-a-holic,” Diana confessed.
Her favorite memory of Casey with animals was on a trip to Australia, with wallabies in a rescue-site, interactive zoo.
“They had babies in their pockets and would come right up to us," Diana said.
Casey doesn’t remember that, since she was only three, but the lemurs are her current favorite. She recalled waving a scarf which they would follow on their side of the glass.
Casey and Diana agree that children love the Akron Zoo because of that kind of interaction (like in the touch tank or seeing the animals up-close).
“Every child seems to get some sort of special experience when they’re here, whether it be the penguin coming up and tapping on the glass while they’re standing there, or the tiger coming over to the glass, looking at them. You can get so close to all of the animals – there’s personal interaction.”
This is precisely why the Akron Zoo is a worthy “plank” on the dock – even if you happen to have another, bigger zoo close to your home.
According to Machelle Syx, the zoo’s special events manager, one of the Akron Zoo’s most unique qualities is that visitors get up-close to the animals. They also have great opportunities for one-to-one connections with staff and volunteers who answer questions.
“You can spend more time at each encounter, watching the animals moving around, and not feel like you have to run, run, run to get everything in,” Diana added.
“I’ve seen so much cool stuff. Like the lemurs playing with you," Casey said.
“It’s a different zoo,” Diana said. “The big cat enclosures are my favorite, because all that is between you and them is the glass. Not a huge moat where you look at them in the distance. You can see them in their power and their glory. That, to me, is very unique about Akron.”
Other unique aspects of the Akron Zoo include the Reef Exhibit, new this year. The penguins are a tried-and-true favorite. Grizzly Ridge is under construction and set to open in 2013. The site will include grizzly bears, red wolves, coyotes, eagles and otters and will be located on the site of the original bear exhibit in Perkins Park, before the zoo was established.
The end of the dock is nearer than you think. Especially this summer, so you may want to carve out some time for this plank THIS week. It’s sure to be a great day.
Upcoming events at the Akron Zoo:
- This Week – Summer Safari! Food vendors, caterers, special booths and more, culuminating in the zoo’s Silent Auction
- Friday, Aug. 10 – Raffle fund-raiser. Visitors can see the zoo and support its good cause!
- Sept. 7 – Senior Safari. Special exhibits and give-aways for senior citizens. Bring the grandkids and make a day of it!
- Sept. 8 – "Dino Train" Day. Meet Buddy the Dinosaur from "Dinosaur Train" (A Jim Henson/PBS production.)