Imagine standing near a creek as moonlight filters through the trees. Out of the darkness steps a massive Siberian tiger, which casually glances in your direction before ducking its head to the water to drink. It makes your heart skip a beat, and you are in that moment thankful for the thick glass that separates you from the magnificent cat.
This was exactly what happened two years ago when I attended my first ZooGala along with Steve and Rob in 2005. The opportunity to explore the zoo at night is just one of the many unique benefits to attending the Calgary Zoo’s annual fundraiser, taking place this year on Friday September 12th.
“The zoo at night is a different place. Even if you are not seeing any animals, as you are walking through the pathways you can hear the lions roar or things stirring the bushes. If you come to Zoogala and get the chance to sneak over to see the lions after dark, I highly recommend it because it will scare the crap out of you,” marketing director Tanya Kaynes told GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine. “The zoo at night is a very cool place and also very romantic. You come to Zoogala with your partner - it is amazing because you can have dinner, dance, and go off for a romantic walk.”
Kaynes sat down with us to discuss all things zoo, and Zoogala, in recent times. Her excitement when she discusses this year’s event is contagious.
“It is so important; it is our big major annual fundraiser, we have been doing it for 17 years. If it does well it usually raises half a million dollars. This year is called Slither: Taste the Forbidden Fruit. The whole idea is to get a little bit more provocative because it is an adult only evening. I am going with Cirque Du Soliel & burlesque, 1940’s tattoo culture feel. It is to tie in also with our year of the frog – amphibians and reptiles. The money raised goes to our next project, the conservatory, which is being ripped down right before Zoogala and being renovated. It is going to be an amazing conservation building, all green with a silver star rating for energy conservation. We are taking out plants to send to other zoos or put in new places in the zoo until it is rebuilt. The new facility is going to be amazing.”
We were not sure what to expect when we attended the event in 2006, and were quite amazed at what we discovered. Many of Calgary’s top restaurants and bars offer a massive spread, while people mingle. It is also the chance to sample some new tastes – the first time we tried Rolo ice cream cones was at Zoogala, while the short lived strawberries and cream flavored Diet Coke was also sampled at the event, among other unique tastes.
“You are definitely getting value for your dollar. There are three levels. For the bare-bones $125 ticket, you get all the food and beverage you can eat and drink all night long. The next level up is $200 VIP: you get a guaranteed 2 behind the scenes experiences. You get two vouchers with your ticket and trade them in for what you want. The third level is the President’s dinner which is a $400 a plate dinner, which includes a 5 course gourmet meal, entertainment, and all the food and beverage you can drink. If you want to be a little more formal that is a good option for you. There is entertainment wandering through, so you can have your visual appetite filled as well. We have Uncovered playing from 8 to 11, so you can dance under the stars, as well as fortune tellers and face painters. It is all very interactive and there is no way you won’t find something to do.”
One of the biggest attractions at Zoogala is the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals.
“As you are walking along the pathway enjoying your evening you could run into a porcupine, pot bellied pig, or a snake. There are behind the scenes tours such as giraffes & hippos, the sloth bear, bison, whooping crane, otters and camels. You can get up close with lions, tigers, and grizzly bears. You are right in the back where the keepers go, and watch them being fed. The big cats’ favorite treat is chicken heads, so if you are a little weak in the stomach you might not want to do those because you can hear the crunching. They are pretty happy when they get that treat, we call them tiger M&M’s. The grizzlies are fed honey or raisins so you can see them up close and they are huge - you don’t realize it until you are standing beside them. No other fundraiser is going to give you this kind of experience.”
Gorilla keeper Garth Irvine gave us a sneak peak of those encounters. First, he took us into destination Africa, where we fed the giraffes carrots, and got a closer look at the lions. Then he escorted us to the Canadian Wilds where we watched one of his fellow keepers feed treats to black bears and grizzly bears, including having the 850 pound male grizzly stand on its hind legs, a truly incredible sight! It was just a small taste of some of the most popular behind the scenes encounters, and I get goose bumps remembering it. It is an experience few get to have and a worthy part of Zoogala.
While much of the focus of the visit was on the fundraiser, visiting the grounds was a reminder of how much fun the zoo can be all year round. The Zoo has come under fire recently from some, after the deaths of all but two of their stingrays in their new touch tank exhibit. Kaynes explained that there is more to many stories than most people realize.
“Definitely when there is a death at the zoo it is a death in the family, and all of the staff are devastated. And it is salt in the wounds when people who don’t have the whole story make comments and accuse the zoo of treating the animals badly or possibly causing the death. It is very frustrating because there is not a person working in the zoo, whether a keeper or working in administration, who wouldn’t do anything to save an animal and give them the best care they possibly can. Organizations like Zoocheck are looking out for the welfare of animals but nine times out of ten they aren’t getting the whole story. It is fear mongering and rallying the troops against something without all the information. With the stingrays there are some opinions that we shouldn’t have had them in the first place, while others are under the opinion that we are in landlocked Alberta, it is an opportunity to educate people about aquatic animals. Showing a child a stingray that may never otherwise see one can change a child’s life. We aren’t a circus making animals do tricks - it is a valuable learning tool. I really feel that a zoo is an educational facility foremost over everything.”
Some people simply do not like seeing animals in captivity, which is their prerogative, but Kaynes pointed out the positive aspects of zoos as to what we should focus on.
“A lot of people are upset about the upcoming arctic shores exhibit because we ‘should not have polar bears, it is better for them to be in the wild.’ But if you ask any zoo employee, they would say they would love to not have a job, because if no zoo employee had a job that would mean everything is safe, nothing is endangered and all habitats are protected. That is ultimately our goal, if all zoos were obsolete that would be fantastic. With polar bears, when it comes down to either shooting and killing one because it comes into human territory, or letting it live in the zoo as an education tool, it seems like a pretty easy answer as opposed to just destroying animals that are coming into human territory. There are more Siberian tigers in captivity than in the wild, which is really sad. To think that we have a part of at least showcasing that animal and showing how amazing they are, it will prompt people to want to do something. If you don’t see it or touch it with your own senses it means nothing to you, so to have it in your own backyard and have an appreciation for it is amazing.”
Another focus of conservation efforts for not only the Calgary Zoo but many other zoos and aquariums is that of frogs, which are rapidly disappearing from the planet.
“Everything that we have done this year has a frog focus, and a lot of our interpretive science is focusing on it. We have northern leopard frogs in the Northern Forest and they are one of our own species in Alberta that is extremely endangered. Our conservation research goes towards saving the species. I think the awareness that the plight of frogs is so dire at this moment is our main concern.”
You can help the zoo with its many goals by buying a membership, donating your time or money, and buying a ticket to Zoogala, which also promises to be a great time.
“If you have never gone, I highly suggest this is the year to come. It is going to be sexy and hot and will give people what they really want in a party: a really good time and the type of energy a lot of parties are lacking. This is the party of the season.”
Friday Sept 12th, 2008
6pm – 12am