Gardens, and Tigers, and Butterflies! Oh My!

The massive male Malayan tiger jumps lightly from rock to rock, powerful muscles rippling beneath its coat, until he finally settles in the shallows of the gurgling stream to bask in the mist from the waterfall directly behind him.
“See what I mean by the connection of art and nature?” I am at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens on a stifling hot summer day and Tony Vecchio, the zoo’s executive director, is remarking on the picture-perfect moment we  are witnessing at their newest exhibit, Land of the Tiger. I have to agree that   the scene before us could truly be considered a work of art.

tiger 600Coming to the zoo to interview Vecchio for an article about a sculpture exhibition being installed in one of the gardens to celebrate the zoo’s 100-year anniversary, I’m not expecting much. I think we will have a nice chat, I will walk to the gardens where the exhibition is housed to check it out, I will go home to write my article, and that will be that. What I don’t expect is to be completely blown away by how much the zoo has changed since I last visited almost ten years ago when my children were still small. And I don’t mean changed by the ravages of time, but changed by extensive improvements that make some areas of the zoo almost unrecognizable to me.

I’m also surprised to learn about the number of events that the zoo hosts throughout the year. Many of us in Northeast Florida are familiar with its Spooktacular event, but events such as the sculpture exhibition that I am here to write about, a summer concert series (Groove at the Zoo), a food and drink festival (Brew at the Zoo), First Saturday Garden Tours, and a holiday lights show (ZOOLights) all offer a wide variety of experiences for visitors, who range from families with young children who come to see the animals, to teenagers on dates, and even to older adults looking for a fun way to spend a day or an evening with friends.

In addition to the new animal exhibits, another stunning change has been to the landscape of the zoo.  As Vecchio accompanies me on a tour of the grounds I “ooh and aah” over the magnificent array of flowers and plants that we pass. The first garden we encounter is Savanna Blooms and I am delighted with its swaying multi-colored grasses and the profusion of flowers and plants lining the wide walkways. This, the first botanical garden at the zoo, opened back in April of 2005, and it surrounds the beautifully redesigned Giraffe Overlook that opened at the same time. Vecchio points out the importance of the gardens to the entire zoo experience: “When people come to the zoo they tell you they don’t care about the gardens, but when they talk about how much they love the zoo they talk about how beautiful the zoo is. They can’t put their finger on it and what I think they’re feeling is the gardens. We created an atmosphere, an experience, and I think people are appreciating, without realizing it, that the plants are as important as any single exhibit, any animal.”

giraffe 600As we meander through two of the other gardens, the stylish and sophisticated Gardens at Trout River Plaza (a popular spot for weddings) and the elegant and refined Asian Bamboo Gardens, he explains his views about nature and art. “I think we separate nature and the environment from art and culture and I don’t think that they should be separated . . . if you really look at people who love and appreciate nature, they’re the same people that love and appreciate music, art, and culture as well.” Luckily, most of Vecchio’s staff members feel the same way, and we head to Butterfly Hollow, the zoo’s whimsical butterfly garden, to meet Bob Chabot, director of horticulture, facilities, and exhibits. “We defer all aesthetic decisions to Bob,” Vecchio says by way of introduction. “I love being the art guy!” exclaims Chabot, whose eyes sparkle with mirth. Chabot is obviously a man who is passionate about his work and this is exemplified through his and his staff’s meticulous planning and implementation of every detail of each garden and exhibit, including the magical Butterfly Hollow. As I explore the mesh building that houses hundreds of native butterflies from March to October, I find charming little fairy houses hidden among the plants, a colorful bottle tree, and other works of art created from “repurposed” materials such as driftwood, washed-up buoys, rusted rebar, and cement chunks from an old sidewalk. I remark on the enchanting music that surrounds us and Bob explains, “Douglas Anderson kids make custom soundtracks for me. It’s so much fun working with them…we brainstorm: ‘what does a fairy soundtrack sound like?’ And this is what we’ve come up with.”

zoo asia 600The successes of the zoo are not only being appreciated and recognized by local supporters, but the zoo has also been in the national spotlight in recent months. In July, the Wall Street Journal featured the zoo’s Land of the Tiger exhibit in an article that discussed how zoos are, “giving their animals more freedom and stimulation while attracting a greater number of visitors.” Dan Maloney, the zoo’s deputy director of animal care and conservation, appears in a video that accompanies the article on the WSJ website and when asked about the new tiger exhibit he says, “It’s been remarkably successful. People really love it, but I think more importantly, the animals seem to be enjoying it as well.” The exhibit was also mentioned in a “CBS Evening News” piece in August that described zoos as, “a 20th-   century attraction trying to keep the attention of a 21st-century crowd.” The piece described ways zoos are attempting to make the zoo experience more exciting for visitors with “a mixture of zoology and showmanship.”

After my tour of the zoo, I meet Philip Alia, the zoo’s new deputy director of marketing and community relations, who lists the many upcoming new and annual events planned for 2015 along with future exhibits, expansions, and the planned black bear and great ape exhibit renovations that are all sure to keep first time and returning visitors thrilled with their zoo experience for many years to come. He also points out that the zoo is actively involved in several conservation initiatives and is even in the process of creating a Manatee Critical Care facility that begins construction soon. With all of the happenings and excitement at the zoo it’s no wonder that 2014 has been a record-breaking year for attendance and that even more visitors are expected next year.  But perhaps Maloney sums up the zoo’s future best when he tells the WSJ, “We hope we’re on to something, we hope we inspire others, and we hope people copy what we’re doing here at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.”

Article written by: Eva Dasher

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