by Tom Krebs | photos by Jill Goetz | photos by Jennifer Goetz + Jeff Carson

“Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo; I do believe it’s true..” – Paul Simon

Yes, it’s definitely happening these days at Topeka’s jewel of a zoo. A new giraffe exhibit, which includes Hope, who underwent a groundbreaking veterinary procedure to correct hyper-flexed tendons, is planned for an August opening. The Kay McFarland Memorial Japanese Garden is literally growing in front of our eyes. Zoo Lights, perhaps the only highlight of 2020, is back, bigger and brighter. A new operating agreement between Friends of Topeka Zoo and the City of Topeka is guiding the zoo towards a roaring future as it strives to meet its mission of conservation.

The Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center is located in Gage Park, west of Gage Blvd. between 6th and 10th Streets. Its roots there go back to 1933 when Monkey Island, a moated enclosure, was established. Since then, it has grown considerably in both size and scope. The current mission statement, “to enrich the community through wildlife conservation and education,” reflects a bold view, one that goes way beyond what many would think about a zoo’s purpose.

The person most associated with this growth is Gary C. Clarke, who served as zoo director from 1963 until 1989. During that time, a number of major exhibits were opened, including the Animals and Man exhibit, the Tropical Rainforest, Discovering Apes Phase I with its focus on Orangutans, Discovering Apes Phase II (Gorilla Encounter), and Lions Pride. Also during that time, Clarke served as the first president of the reformed Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Clarke also implemented the Zoo School program, which began to educate the public about the zoo and its mission. The education programs have grown substantially since their inception, and now include in-person and virtual programs, and Bringing the Zoo To You. Also in the education effort are camps for children as well as the Ecoclubs. They provide an opportunity for children and teens who are interested in the environment to meet and share ideas and interests on how to positively impact the planet. They meet live animals, talk about conservation, and develop projects to help the community and the world.

Adults interested in being part of the zoo are certainly not left out. Since the first class in 2017, after almost a 20 year absence, the docent program has trained well over 100 adults to serve as volunteer teachers and guides who provide rewarding, hands-on experiences to the public. They are ambassadors for the zoo, a voice for endangered species, and a part of the zoo’s ongoing education and conservation efforts.

Of course, at the heart of the zoo experience are the animals themselves.

From the smallest tarantula to the massive hippo, zoo animals are tended by dozens of dedicated zookeepers. The zookeepers ensure the animals are healthy in both body and in mind. Animals in human care consistently outlive their wild counterparts by 50-100 percent. Just as importantly, the zookeepers work diligently to see the animals get the kind of mental stimulation they would experience in the wild. By offering enrichment opportunities into the daily lives of the larger animals, zookeepers respond to animals’ instinctual need for a changing environment.

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