Friday, June 22, 2007

NY Daily News: Animal Magnetism! bY Lisa L. Colangelo

Flushing Meadows' 11-acre Zoo Marks 15 years of Teaching Visitors

A sun conure, a type of New World parrot, is one of the Queens zoo's many distinctive residents.

How do you hide a 900-pound sea lion bull in the middle of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park?

How about four of them?

Phoenix, Howie, Bull and Butch aren't exactly hiding in their watery compound at the Queens Zoo. But many people are still surprised to hear about the leafy 11-acre animal-filled sanctuary on the edge of the park.

"It's a wonderful place," said Assistant Director Scott Silver. "Too many people tell me they have been in Queens their whole lives and didn't know we were here."

Today the zoo will hold a 15th anniversary celebration to mark the renovation and reopening by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1992.

The small zoo actually opened on the site of the 1964 World's Fair back in 1968. By the late 1980s, it was badly in need of a face-lift.

A deal between the society and the city Parks Department paved the way for a $16 million reconstruction.

Where the zoo once concentrated on only North American animals, it has expanded to include animals of the Americas, ranging from two Andean bears - Spangles and Cisco - to bison and toucans.

Silver said that change hasn't been lost on local families, including many recent immigrants from South America who visit the zoo and talk to their children about animals from their homelands.

"A lot of people appreciate that," Silver said. "It also gives us some more exotic animals. A great deal of our mission is to teach people about what's out there."

Marcy Brown, a senior keeper who has worked at the zoo since it reopened, said the staff works like a family.

"The animals always come first here," said Brown. "These are my kids."

When the zoo opened, the sea lions were just 100- to 200-pound "babies," Brown said. But she added that it's the bison that have a special place in her heart.

"They are such regal animals," she said. "And I find them fascinating to watch. When we had a baby bison, they circled their young, as if they were still in the wild, to protect them from predators. But they were all born in captivity."

Brown said that several of the animals, such as pumas Felix and Cleo, were rescued. The two orphans were brought to the zoo several years ago as cubs after their mother was killed.

While the mission is to teach people about animals, Silver said, it's important for visitors to just relax and enjoy themselves while they walk through the zoo.

"The animals do the work for us," Silver said. "If people come here and take with them an appreciation for wildlife, that it's part of their world and something of value, I am happy."