Over the years, I have written about rooting around for mushrooms, long walks around the bay or along the coast, cycling the Avenue of the Giants, tidepooling, ziplining and wrestling bears (OK, I didn't write that one). But I overlooked something that takes no planning, no preparation and no special skills or knowledge — the Sequoia Park Zoo. Even if bush dogs or red pandas or rheas aren't your thing, it's worth checking out the new multi-million-dollar Watershed Heroes exhibit opening Sunday, Aug 17.
As Zoo Manager Gretchen Ziegler shared when we were walking around the new exhibit, "One of the challenges is to explain the complicated concept of a watershed [to kids] without using lots of big words." She pointed to the three-dimensional river installation that will greet visitors to the exhibit, complete with cascading water, streambeds and imbedded symbols for the humans, animals, plants and industries that depend on rivers. Best of all, you can walk on it.
Although the exhibit features three iconic North Coast animals — the river otter, the salmon, and the bald eagle — the salmon is the key species. As Ziegler explained, "The watershed touches all parts of salmon habitat and we have already developed the character of Super Salmon in other educational exhibits. We'll catch some heat professionally [for anthropomorphizing the salmon], but it is better for outreach."
We walked by the salmon tanks, which are also visible from inside the adjacent learning lab, and under the overhead logjam. Just as logjams provide wild salmon with protection and keep river waters cool, this one gives some cover for zoo guests and fish. Next to the salmon will be the elaborate home of the river otters, initially occupied by three half-brothers. Etu, Takota and Toblerone (or Tobey to his friends) will have a night house, a landscaped earthen knoll and a rocky water playground, along with several ways for people to observe them. The word is out about the clear tubes that will allow nimble humans to crawl (or wriggle in my case) through the middle of the otters' aquapark. If there is no size or age limitation, I will be among those waiting in line.
The eagle aviary, which won't be finished for the opening, will be home to non-flighted rescue eagles. I wondered why not osprey, but Ziegler said that they don't adapt well to captivity. Eagles seem to love having food provided and don't mind zoo life. The success of the local high-profile eagle cam is a reminder of just how charismatic and loved the birds are. The zoo supported the purchase of the original eagle cam by the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, and will stream its broadcast into the learning lab. There are also plans to add a spotted owl in the future.
The final element of the Watershed Heroes exhibit is the learning laboratory, for which the zoo has partnered with nearby Washington Elementary School, the Ryan Center After School Program and the Humboldt County Office of Education to make the most of the new exhibit. The lab (which looks like a well-appointed classroom) makes room for more visiting classes. Admire the columns at the front of the building — they were crafted from re-used redwood from the site.
The zoo depends heavily on volunteer help and has opportunities for a wide range of ages and interests. Children between the ages of 11 and 15 can apply to become youth assistant keepers, an annual summer program. There is also the zoo crew (must be at least 16) that assists with the feeding and handling of the animals and cleaning exhibits. Even adults can serve as zoo interpreters. There are special event and office volunteers, too. Begin the process by completing the online volunteer interest form at www.sequoiaparkzoo.net or contact the volunteer coordinator at 441-4205. I suspect that between the school visits and the volunteer opportunities, Humboldt County might see a surge in aspiring zookeepers.
Ziegler and the zoo have plenty more plans for future growth. Once the zoo catches its breath from this project, it'll direct energy toward creating a native predator exhibit (black bear and mountain lion), a raven exhibit and teaching about the importance of wildlife corridors. The Sequoia Park Zoo has survived 107 years (it is the oldest in California; nine years older than the San Diego Zoo) by being innovative and progressive (one of the smallest zoos in the country accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums). Long gone are the small, barred cages and crowded spaces.
And now, well, think about it. You can spend endless hours pursuing the momentary thrill of spotting a river otter in a local river or estuary, or the dark shadow of a steelhead holding in a deep pool or you can visit the Watershed Heroes exhibit and observe a Chinook or an otter to your heart's content.
Sequoia Park Zoo
$6.75 adults $4.75 children (3-12) $4.75 seniors (60+) Free for children under 3
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.(Closed Mondays after Labor Day)
3414 W St., Eureka