Streuli: OKC Zoo is on a tear

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

I had lunch on Tuesday with a much younger woman. It was our first meeting, although I have admired her from a distance the past two years. She is adorable, with big brown eyes and exceptionally long lashes. She’s very smart, she’s sociable, and she’s a bit of a showoff in the most endearing possible way. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but she is, of course, a vegetarian, and dined on leafy romaine with some peanuts and oranges.

When she smiles that memorable smile it’s easy to see her molars, which are approximately the size of bricks. All the better, as there’s a lot of chewing every day if you weigh 2,200 pounds. And she’ll weigh nearly four times that much when she’s grown.

That’s Achara; she’s 2, and she’s just about everybody’s favorite little elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Thanks to zoo CEO Dwight Lawson, a few of us got to play hooky from our weekly Rotary club meeting and have lunch at the zoo – plus a little backstage elephant time – instead.

Here’s what I didn’t know but should have: The Oklahoma City Zoo is on a tear. More than 1 million people per year have visited the zoo each of the last several years, and the zoo set a new attendance record of 1,070,388 visitors in 2016. The zoo set monthly attendance records in October, November, December and January thanks to some unusually pleasant weather. More than 29,000 trick-or-treaters showed up to Haunt the Zoo.

The zoos in San Diego, Omaha, the Bronx, Toledo, Memphis, St. Louis, and Columbia, South Carolina, all get consistently high marks. There’s no official zoo ranking, but USA Today lets readers vote every year and Oklahoma City’s zoo has placed as high as 11th, just missing the top 10 by a whisker. That’s pretty good considering the Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredits 215 zoos in the United States.

There are some good reasons our 115-year-old zoo is so popular. At 203 acres it’s twice as big as the San Diego Zoo, and thanks to a dedicated one-eighth of 1-percent sales tax it enjoys more dependable funding than many other zoos. And we love our zoo – 28,000 households belong to the Oklahoma Zoological Society, better known as Zoofriends.

And the zoo is going to get even better. The 2010 master plan calls for $163 million in capital improvements over 20 years and next on the list is a 6.6-acre expansion called Sanctuary Asia that will include a two-story restaurant and – dare we hope? – event space overlooking the Asian elephants, rhinos, red pandas and Komodo dragons. Bonus: There’s a new food vendor. If you live in one of those 28,000 Zoofriends households, you likely already know why that’s a bonus.

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