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Gulf Breeze Zoo is welcoming visitors again

Bill Vilona
Special to the News Journal
The Destin Log

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At a caretaker’s urging, Kiboko, a 3,000-pound, Nile Hippopotomus, burst from the brackish pond below to rest its massive head on the newly-built observation deck ledge to enjoy a mid-day snack.

Mouth open, teeth shining, there was machine-like digestion of freshly sliced apple wedges, part of a special daily diet, then back to rest with its even bigger, female hippo companion, Cleopatra, in the comforts of the pond.

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“I have some more for you, buddy,” said Jamie McMaster, assistant director/general curator for the Gulf Breeze Zoo in showing off the zoo’s newest addition to the hippo habitat.

“I think this will be really special for our zoo,” she said. “In the country, I don’t think you will find a lot of places to do this,” she said. “They are actually pretty happy to see people and I think they are showing off.”

Beginning Friday, that happened again.

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Shuttered since March 23, as part of response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Gulf Breeze Zoo began accepting visitors at 9 a.m. Friday.

There are several social distance guidelines and visitor limitations practiced, including the distances kept between visitors.

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But the 1,000-plus animals in the carefully designed, thick foliage park will be able to have a daily experience again with the public.

“Our animals are expert people watchers,” said Katy Massey, conservation curator, now in her fourth year with the Gulf Breeze Zoo and sister property Alabama Safari Park near Montgomery, Alabama, which is a drive-through zoo experience.

“With (animals), it’s almost like ‘Who turned off the TV?' I always think animals make the world better, period. For us, they become part of a family. We are a wild family, here.”

In the past six weeks, the 40 employees at the Gulf Breeze Zoo have worked as if it was business as normal. They have interacted with the animals, made sure the surroundings were well-maintained, spruced up several areas and kept the animals safe and content.

“That saying about the show must go on doesn’t change here at the zoo,” Massey said. “All of our staff has come in. And we have animals to take care of here. Conservation doesn’t stop when the doors are closed.

“We have some really critically, endangered animals here that we work on conservation efforts every day. So our staff still has a job to do every day.

“We’re excited to be reopening to share what we are doing here.”

The Gulf Breeze Zoo offers a lot to share.

Few zoos have a one-acre habitat, specifically crafted for two Nile hippos, which are the larger of two hippo species and with prehistoric roots dating back 55 million years ago.

The two African native mammals — third largest land mammal species in the world — can consume as much as 150 pounds of food per-day, much of it enjoyed at night when all hippos like to eat. Kiboko is 24 years old. Cleopatra is 34. Hippos can live well into their 50s.

“It is a really special species that not a lot of zoos in the world have,” Massey said. “We are really lucky to have them. They always have access to food. It’s like a free-standing buffet 24 hours a day.”

Later this summer, the zoo hopes to allow visitors to reserve a ticket for an additional fee to stand with McMaster or other caretakers at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to help feed the two hippos. It will allow humans the rarest of up-close encounters with an endangered species.

It can’t happen now due to social distance concerns. In the past several months, the zoo created the Kiboko River Station as an observation deck for visitors. Kiboko is the Swahili term for hippopotamus.

“I think this will be really special for our zoo. In the country, I don’t think you will find a lot of places to do this,” McMaster said.

“In the wild, Hippos have been poached and their carcasses left out in the wild where other hippos have eaten and contracted Anthrax,” Massey said. “Large amounts of hippos have died due to Anthrax.

“We want to raise public awareness in a fun way where people can see them up close, see how cool they are and why they want us to help save them. Money from these encounters will help us directly go to conservation.”

The zoo’s open-air train which transports visitors to one area of the park where the hippos are located, passes through several other island areas with rare animals to see.

The zoo has a group of white rhinos in various sizes in a 10-acre habitat. The white rhino, largest of the rhinoceros species with males weighing more than 5,000 pounds, is the world’s second-largest land mammal behind the African bush elephant.

“A lot of days, they love to just roll around in the mud and cover themselves, because that acts as a sun screen for them,” Massey said.

On the other side of that exhibit, separated by water, is an orangutan exhibit where the three orangutans frolic amid thick trees and other play areas. One of those is Arty, the world’s first male orangutan born through assisted reproduction.

Arty stands for Artificial Reproduction Technology. The zoo just added the orangutan exhibit in January.

“It is one of crown jewels of the park,” Massey said. “There are less than 300 orangutans in zoos in all of North America.”

As the train moves, so do animals nearby like rheas, a South American bird related to the ostrich family. Also close by are Thomson’s gazelle, another endangered, African species that can run at speeds up to 60 miles per hour when avoiding prey.

“The Gulf Breeze Zoo has one of the best conservation breeding programs in the entire country,” said Massey, who graduated from a California university specializing in exotic animal training management.

Near the camel exhibit at one end of the zoo are three lowland gorillas, including the silver-humpback male, Babooka, who is 24 years old.

Thursday, as the zoo prepared for opening, the gorillas were especially active on their wide open range, running with tree limbs and hanging from their various play stations, which include gorilla size hammocks.

“They miss people,” Massey said. “You walk by our giraffe and you can just hear it saying, ‘I want to see people.’ Especially the herd animals, because they’re used to that. We’re part of their group.”

Massey said the zoo staff has taken numerous precautions to keep all the animals healthy. She said gorillas, so closely tied to humans, can catch even a common cold from a human caretaker.

Most of the animals, including the zoo’s 24-year-old tiger in its exhibit and the pink flamingos and goats in a public feeding area, were visible to people again Friday.

“Our public safety, staff safety and animal safety are the No. 1 things you think about when you have a zoo setting,” Massey said. “Our company culture is that we want to get people as close to animals as possible, while keeping them as safe as possible. We feel if people develop a connection with animals, they want to save them.”

Bill Vilona is a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and current senior writer for Pensacola Blue Wahoos/Studer55. He can be reached at bvilona@bluewahoos.com