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Find out about the animals, events, behind the scenes information and more from the staff of Blank Park Zoo.

The Zoo That Grew Me

Posted on 01/25/2016 at 3:45 PM

The author exploring at age 7.

My family came to Iowa in 1996, when I was 3 and half years old. I remember driving up to our new home: a large salmon pink and beige house with a huge front yard and land stretching behind it. It looked immense at the time, and slightly barren. We lived out in the country in a space of shared borders; our address was Norwalk, our water Des Moines, and our school Indianola. Living 15 minutes from nearly all of my school friends, my playground was outside and my companions were animals. I raised butterflies and tadpoles, I caught snakes and rescued baby birds (on some occasions, baby mice), and I had my own Audubon field guide with my 8 year-old field notes scrawled inside. I was fascinated with the natural world, and I began to learn without even realizing it. I found that my caterpillars would always eat the plant on which I first discovered them (which is how I learned that monarchs prefer milkweed to lay their eggs). I learned that snakes liked to bask on warm surfaces on cold mornings; I learned robins make a certain noise when you get too close to their nests; I learned to tell the difference between a monarch and a viceroy, and I learned that bats would catch your leftover fishing worms if you threw them in the air high enough. 

All of this knowledge, at the time, seemed to be part of my daily adventure and play. But in reality, it formed the basis for an understanding of ecology, zoology, and conservation. I do think that regardless of where I had grown up, I would have developed a love for nature, but I think I was particularly lucky to have not only had a huge back yard, but also a zoo.  When my brother and I were very young, my mother would pile us into the car and drive us 8 minutes to the zoo for the entire day, often two times a week. The zoo was the ultimate adventure for my small self. While my backyard had deer, robins, and garter snakes; the zoo had zebras, “bad hair day cranes” (Grey-crowned cranes, of course), and pythons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the zoo offered a valuable bridge to my backyard learning: birds at the zoo still had nests and made different calls, the zebras (although certainly not deer) still lived in herds and grazed on grass, the massive pythons still preferred the warm sun, just like our tiny garters. One of the first things I remember learning from the zoo is that no matter where an animal is from or how exotic it may seem, the rules of nature still apply.  Categories like “mammals” and “reptiles” began to make sense to me on a functional level, and ecosystems and behavioral characteristics became reachable concepts. 

The time I spent at the zoo also offered a bridge, however imaginary, to faraway places. The zoo helped me learn that the world was so much bigger than I often felt it could be. When you grow up in the country, especially in Iowa, and even in the huge United States, you often feel you are living in a bubble. “The world” can seem to exist only within state or national borders. But as a child, seeing a tiger, a giraffe, an emu, or a snow monkey was revolutionary. These animals were part of a much bigger place than Des Moines or Indianola.  I could see that my backyard was only one of a billion other backyards. Somewhere a child was watching a monkey play in the trees behind her house, and another may be spotting wallabies on his way home from school. It is often incredibly difficult to achieve a sense of “worldliness” when you cannot afford to travel, but the zoo did the travelling for me, and the zoo allowed a small girl’s mind imagine the far spaces of the globe that she could someday visit. 

I was 7 when the zoo opened the indoor jungle exhibit. At the time, I was particularly interested in butterflies, so the indoor butterfly garden (now home to a type of Australian sparrow, I believe) felt like pure magic. I remember being thrilled to know that butterflies from real jungles had caterpillars and chrysalises too. My excitement was only amplified when I met the new marmosets. I realized, quickly, that if you mimicked their high pitched squeaking noise you could get them to come to your side of the cage. I saw how intelligent they were (smarter than my cat at home at least) and how different they seemed from any other animal. I do think on some level I had always been interested in monkeys, but I know the marmosets were certainly a catalyst in what would turn out to be a long-lived adoration for all things primate. Before leaving one day, my brother and I were given a rare opportunity to pick out something from the gift shop. I chose Antuco, a hanging stuffed squirrel monkey. These hanging monkeys were a well-known “Wild Futures” brand series, and I would eventually start getting one with almost every visit to the zoo. I learned each one’s species (sifaka, gibbon, tamarin) and kept them all hanging in my room, swearing that I’d work in a zoo with the monkeys one day. Antuco is currently hanging next to me as I write in my room in Oxford, UK.

The author with Antuco in present day.

In the 8th grade, I job-shadowed a zookeeper at the Blank Park Zoo for a school assignment.  I don’t remember much past cleaning the huge giraffe house and asking lots of questions, but I know I was more excited for that day than I’d ever been for a day in the classroom. I was thrilled to learn about the “ZooCrew” volunteer program, which I saw (at the time) as a chance to work my way up the system. A year later, I was finally 14 and I became a certified volunteer. To say I was obsessed might be an understatement; my AIM username was (embarrassingly) “zoogrl28.” During the summer of 2006 I spent eight hours a day, three days a week volunteering for the zoo. I prepared food for the birds and the prairie dogs, I cleaned the petting zoo, and I helped the older interns with their summer camp courses. I was so incredibly excited to finally be a part of the place that I had visited so often. I got to groom Dolly, the llama that I had loved from the early days, I got to feed Barnaby the tortoise, whose long neck I had touched once when I was 8, I learned the names of the giraffes that I had known for years, and I formed a bond with nearly every goat the petting zoo had to offer.  My favorite job involved working the information stands across the zoo.  At these stands, I had little items for visitors to touch (an ostrich egg, hair from a giraffe tail, a peacock feather) and I shared facts about the exhibit animals. It was working those stands that taught me that not only could my personal knowledge be useful and interesting to others, but that many of my fellow Iowans hadn’t yet come to appreciate the astounding world of animals the same way that I had. 

When I was a sophomore at Drake University (majoring in, of course, Zoology) I was able to return to the zoo as a Summer Safari Intern. I was suddenly in charge of the younger Zoo Crew volunteers and a large horde of 5 and 6 year olds each week. Again, I found a great joy in not only teaching children and parents about the natural world, but I found it particularly exciting to introduce strangers to “my” zoo. In the years that I had grown up there, I felt the zoo had grown up with me. As I had added inches to my height, the zoo had added an indoor jungle, a marvelous playground, a cool clock tower, a travelling exhibit, a lecture series on conservation, and even a newly renovated Australia sector. I was (and still am) a believer of the Blank Park Zoo, and I wanted others to understand its value to the state of Iowa. 

The author, top far right, as an intern in 2011

Someone else must have believed in us too, because in the summer of 2012 the zoo was lucky enough to host the annual Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference. I could not attend, because that summer I was in Rwanda for my undergraduate research, but I obsessively read the updates on Twitter and Facebook. It was through this obsession that I saw a zoo tweet about the upcoming talk of Dr. Anna Nekaris, a renowned expert on the endangered Slow Loris. Interested, I clicked the link and found that she was a tutor on the Oxford Brookes University Master’s course on Primate Conservation. It is now almost 2016, about four years later. I graduated from Drake University in 2014 with a BS in Zoology (concentrating in Primatology) and Environmental Science. I began the Brookes  Primate Conservation course in Oxford, UK in September of 2014, and finished almost exactly one year later. Now, in late January 2016, I am starting my PhD at Oxford Brookes under the tutelage of Dr. Anna Nekaris, with my work focusing on nocturnal African primates. In the last few years I have been lucky enough to see many of my favorite zoo animals in the wild. I have been able to meet many leaders in conservation and I have been to many, many different countries and cities. And I know for a fact that much of my current success stemmed from an early love for the zoo.

The author, right, in Rwanda in 2012 for undergraduate chimpanzee research.

Every year that I can come home, I spend some time at my zoo. In many ways, the Blank Park Zoo is “home” for me. The zoo and I both continue to grow, something that I hope can continue for many years.  So here is the moral of the story:  zoos are important. Zoos can teach about nature and conservation, promote respect for wildlife, and inspire travel and adventure. A good zoo can inspire and grow a veterinarian, a scientist, a zookeeper, a teacher, a farmer, or a primatologist. A zoo can grow you. So here’s my advice. Go find your nearest accredited zoo.  Don’t just stroll through with your cell phone camera at the ready. Really make an effort to learn.  If you bring your child, help them learn as well. Learn about the animals, read the signs, watch how the animals move, and listen to how they sound. Imagine the places these animals live, and what it might be like to see one in the wild. Consider that currently, in some zoo, a little girl or boy is seeing a raccoon or a Virginia opossum for the first time, and imagining the far-off world of North America. Learn why some of the animals you see in zoos are disappearing, and imagine they are the animals you grew up with. Take action and donate to conservation projects (local or international), schedule a trip to a far-off place, or simply appreciate the natural world. The motto of the Blank Park Zoo is deceptively simple: “Do the Zoo.” So that’s my challenge. Do the zoo, but do it right. Let it teach and inspire you and your children, your friends and your family, just as it taught and inspired me.  

Further Reading:

  • Read about responsible wildlife tourism here.
  • Donate to the Blank Park Zoo’s conservation efforts, expansion efforts, and education efforts here
  • Not all zoos are good, but luckily a group of experts make choosing a good zoo in the United States easy. Read about accreditation here.

The author, far left, in Kibale National Forest for Master's research, Uganda in 2015

Averee Luhrs is living in Oxford, UK and is gearing up for three years of researching two little-known species of nocturnal primate in West Africa. She comes home to Iowa at least once a year and always visits the zoo. She asks that if you love the zoo as much as she does, that you donate, become a member, and spread the word. She can be reached at averee.m.l@gmail.com.


Night Hike with Nature Club

Posted on 12/16/2015 at 4:00 PM

This past Saturday turned out to be a great evening for a bonfire and hike!  We were fortunate that the weather cooperated and the rain held off until later in the evening.  The clouds made for a pitch black sky, which was the perfect atmosphere for a discussion about the adaptations of nocturnal animals.  While we learned about some amazing creatures of the night, we also enjoyed s’mores and drank hot cocoa around the bonfire.  Polk County naturalist Patti Petersen-Keys taught us about owls and their amazing night vision, silent flight, and excellent hearing!

Patti then led us on a hike through the woods.   With such little light, our eyes really had to adjust!  This led to a great discussion about rods and how they help our eyes adjust to dim lighting.  That is why the eyes of many nocturnal animals are packed with rod cells! On the other hand, these animals have fewer color-sensing cone cells in their eyes because there isn’t enough light for the color to be detected at night.   When Patti handed us the craft foam pieces, the cone cells of our eyes couldn’t make out the colors very easily in the dark.  Our night hike consisted of some other great discovery activities as well such as exploring bioluminescence by chomping on Wintergreen mints that made our mouths glow and spark.  We also used our sense of “touch” to identify mystery items Patti brought to share.  Who knew we could have so much fun in the woods at night without flashlights?        

If you would like to join us for future nature activities, Nature Club will meet again in January at the zoo for some fun in the snow! You can register now by clicking here.


First Nature Club Excursion

Posted on 11/06/2015 at 3:41 PM

Our first Nature Club excursion was a success! In October, we ventured out into Browns Woods, where a naturalist showed us around the park. After our hike, we painted some mini pumpkins for Halloween. 

We had a blast, and we hope that you did too!

For the month of November, our Nature Club will be exploring the nature nooks you can find almost anywhere, including your own backyard! We will be playing in the area behind the large pavilion in the zoo.  Afterward, we will head up to the wooded area behind Africa where there will complete a scavenger hunt and all sorts of hiding places to find! After the scavenger hunt, we will head back to the ZooPlex, where we will collect pinecones and make bird feeders* to hang up at home. If you would like to register to attend this event, please click here!

*This activity will involve SunButter, which is made from sunflower seeds rather than peanuts. We will also be using birdseed. Please let us know about any allergies or concerns.

If you are interested in learning more about nature play and want ideas on how to incorporate nature into you backyard play area, please check out some of the links below!




A Partnership for Pollinators!

Posted on 11/05/2015 at 8:12 AM

Native prairie seeding continues at Blank Park Zoo in partnership with Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and People for Pollinators! This is a continuation of our partnership formed around our pollinator conservation program, Plant.Grow.Fly.

Several pounds of native prairie seeds were donated to the Zoo to help restore areas around the train tracks to create much needed wildlife habitat. In spring, these flowers and grasses will attract a variety of native pollinators, helping to boost local populations of bees and butterflies, like the iconic monarch butterfly. 

This native planting will take a few years to mature. Some say prairie plantings “sleep” the first year, “creep” the second year, and “leap” the third year. We are excited to teach our tens of thousands of train riders how to identify native prairie plants and the pollinators that depend on them.

To learn about how you can join Blank Park Zoo, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, People for Pollinators and all of our partners in Plant.Grow.Fly., go to www.blankparkzoo.com




Old Souls Come Back for Annual Visit in Mexico for The Day of the Dead

Posted on 11/03/2015 at 2:24 PM

While the U.S. wraps up their Halloween celebration on the evening of October 31st, in Mexico, the celebrations for Dia De los Muertos, also known as The Day of the Dead, are just beginning. The Day of the Dead is a three day long holiday of Hallow’s Eve, all Saints Day, and All Souls Day. Every year, it is between October 31st and November 2nd that millions of monarch butterflies flood into Mexico’s skies and into remote forest sanctuaries. It is awe-inspiring as the blue sky is dotted all over with orange specs when you look up. These little creatures are welcomed in with a celebration as they fly through, an endless moving sky of orange and black.

So what happens for The Day of the Dead? 
Much like in the U.S., people dress up in various costumes such as ghouls, skeletons, mummies, and ghosts, but instead of going around town for candy, they walk through the village with smiling faces. It is a large parade that is a pretend funeral procession. The streets have alters with pictures of the deceased of each family that is displayed with food, items, and candles that are lit to honor those who are no longer able to be with them. 

Why the Butterflies?
These beautiful black and orange butterflies have migrated a long way (over 2,000 miles!) to get to Mexico and once arriving, they become the centerpiece of the festivities. Monarchs, small and free and able to fly where they want, are ideal for this celebration, showing that spirits aren’t held down by Earthly problems or sadness, they are simply free. 

Legend has it that the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who have passed away but have returned to Earth to visit and check in on their relatives every year during The Day of the Dead. It is a dialogue between the dead and the living where family roots, identity, and that exploration of whatever may come next is explored. 

The migration starts for the monarchs as they leave the northeast U.S. and southeastern Canada. From there, no one knows how these creatures get to the specific isolated oyamel trees in Mexico - this is considering that the monarchs never have been there before! The monarchs will clump closely together for warmth, their wings folded together. Soon, there are so many on each branch that their own combined weight will pull the branch down. But, it isn’t just the branches; the monarchs will also cover the trunks of the trees, making the tree look alive with each individual stretch of their wings. They also will fly to and fro, from one tree to another, both by flapping and riding the air breeze, looking carefree. This further supports the idea that monarchs are free spirits, able to do what they please and oversee the festivities. 

Monarchs have become an important part of Mexico’s culture for hundreds of years, and they will continue to be celebrated as free souls coming back to visit and say “hola.” 

Blank Park Zoo is excited to say that we have started a new conservation initiative to help protect monarchs and other pollinators! With Plant. Grow. Fly. We can continue to support these gorgeous creatures and others in our own region so this special migration will happen for years to come!



Photo Credit: Mark O'Brien

There are so many monarch butterflies that gather on the branches of oyamel trees that they actually weigh down the branches!



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