'Better than ever' zoo [Commentary]

In the past (almost) seven years since I came to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as president and CEO, I've said many times that the zoo is a place full of life and stories — funny stories, sad stories, public stories and private stories. Judging from the comments I have been getting from visitors lately, stories about all of the new exhibits at the zoo — including the recently opened Penguin Coast — may be some of the best stories yet.

In 2008, it was widely reported that we were at a critical juncture at the zoo — and that was true then. There were a lot of tough decisions that needed to be made, and made quickly, to shore up the business end of our operations and move the zoo forward. Going backward was not an option. Working with many committed individuals in both the public and private sector, we have accomplished a great many things since 2008.

Penguin Coast is a critical juncture of another sort — it's where we put our all into developing an amazing exhibit that brings the African penguins and cormorants closer than ever to a wondering public. There's something about penguins that fascinates people of all ages. We saw that clearly at one pre-opening event where children were holding plush penguins, adults were wearing penguin hats, 20-somethings had penguin tattoos and grandparents proudly pointed out the birds diving, swimming and waddling about. All of these folks share a passion for these animals and were quick to say that they were so happy to see the penguins closer than ever.

What they may not have seen is that for four years, almost every moment was leading up to this — a time when zoo staff and volunteers could proudly show off the many exciting changes that they have been working so hard to accomplish. This year alone we have reopened the newly renovated African and Marsh Aviaries, moved flamingos into public view, brought new species such as mini-longhorn cattle and alpaca to the Farmyard section and of course, opened Penguin Coast.

But we can't forget that we've had other new exhibits and experiences before 2014 — Prairie Dog Town, the Giraffe Feeding Station, the Jones Falls Zephyr rain, two new outdoor lemur exhibits — one for sifaka and one for ring-tailed lemurs — creating Lemur Lane just outside Chimpanzee Forest, as well as bringing back our glorious national symbol, the bald eagle. We've welcomed Samson, the first ever African elephant to be born at the zoo, two lion cubs, four highly endangered sifaka babies, three colobus monkey babies, hundreds of Panamanian golden frogs, a few dozen African penguin chicks and more.

We've had our share of losses, too. But we realize that as much as we celebrate the birth of an animal, so too do we need to reflect on the lives that have passed here and remember that we have done everything possible to provide the animals in our care the best of care every day.

We closed the zoo for a week leading up to the opening of Penguin Coast. The staff planted gardens, swept the pathways, power-washed the main gate, moved birds to their new homes and basically spit-polished the entire facility from top to bottom. We were fortunate to have sunny skies and light breezes greet our opening weekend guests — our many, many guests. The penguins were clearly the stars of the show; however our staff and volunteers reported happy crowds all throughout the zoo.

Whenever someone stops and says to me, "I'm so proud of our zoo," they don't realize that their words mean so much more to me. To me they are saying, "I have visited. I know how wonderful it is. I'll be back." And I say, "Please come visit — we will be here. It's your zoo, and it's better than ever."

Donald P. Hutchinson is president and chief executive of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. He can be reached at feedback@marylandzoo.org.

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