Rena Ashton loves the wild side of life. As Zoo Boise's educational director for the last seven years, it's Ashton's job to help bring the wonder of the animal kingdom to the public with special programs. Since she began as a volunteer in 1995, Ashton has seen the zoo undergo some major changes. Now, as it prepares to break ground on its most ambitious project yet, the "Out of Africa" exhibit, Ashton sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about life at the zoo.
Did you study to work in zoos?
(It was) kind of by accident. I always wanted to work with animals, and so after I graduated college, I tried a lot of different things to see which would be the best avenue. I tried wildlife rehabilitation, I did wildlife education in zoos and nature centers for a while. I did a couple of internships, did zookeeping, I tried it all. And when I compared all of them, this seemed to fit my personality, and I felt I could do a lot better at this job than I could at some of the other jobs.
Was working with animals something you always wanted to do?
Yes. Actually, when I realized that every job I wanted wasn't going to make a lot of money, I tried to change my career path, but it just wasn't as interesting or as important to me as working for wildlife.
What are some things you've done in your zoo career that stand out?
I grew up in a city, and so the first time at Brookfield Zoo (in Chicago), I worked in the children's zoo where I had to milk a cow. Maybe here in Idaho it's no big thing, but for me, coming out of the city, that was pretty exciting.
What does your job as education coordinator entail?
It's really providing educational opportunities for every person who walks through that gate. So we offer programs for schools, ... visitor education where we provide opportunities for visitors who are just casually coming to the zoo ... and youth programs ... where kids get dropped off here at the zoo ... and finally, family programs.
Is there a focus to changes at the zoo?
One thing is the zoo, for a long time, hadn't undergone any improvements. So since 1994, the zoo has undergone about $3 million worth of improvements. Those are things that some visitors can see directly in the animal exhibits, making the animal exhibits more naturalistic, but also a lot of infrastructure, like sewer lines going bad, electrical needed to be replaced, so a lot of things that visitors don't see. It's an old zoo, it's been here a long time. The other direction is, in the past in zoos, it's always been the more animals you have, the better. But now the focus, especially for us with a smaller budget, is to have fewer animals, but better spaces for those animals.
What about the upcoming Africa exhibit?
This is the biggest project to date. It's called "Out of Africa," and the feature animals will be lions, giraffes, rock hyraxes --which is the closest living animal to the elephant we have on earth today, but they're about the size of a large guinea pig--weaver birds, and a lot of other interactives for kids to play on. The difference is, again, we're including more of the human element, so when you walk into this exhibit you'll actually walk into the middle of an African village. All the buildings will be themed as an African village, with the savannah surrounding you, so you'll have to kind of go on the outskirts of the village to look into the animal exhibits.
How is fund raising going?
We're almost there. We've got close to $600,000 to raise by August, and hopefully we'll start breaking ground in August, and it will be done in summer 2008.
Does improving the exhibits improve the animals' experiences as well as the visitors'?
The exhibit itself, the way it's built, provides a better experience for the animal ... It also really is huge on how you present it to the visitor. It no longer is, "Stand outside and look through a barred cage at animals."
How many visitors does the zoo get each year?
Last year we had 270,000 visitors.
Is it growing each year?
Oh yes. I think for the past five years we've broken our attendance [records]. Part of that is attributed to a growing community. But apart from that, no matter how much your community grows, no one's going to come and see a yucky zoo. We like to think we're doing our job well.
What's the public's favorite thing in the zoo?
Animals that always get a big reaction are tigers. People always come to see the tigers. The penguins, the giraffe slide, oh, and the monkeys.
What's your favorite?
That's impossible to choose. They're all so unique in their own way. I have a personal liking for birds.
What does the zoo have coming up?
This summer, the butterfly exhibit will be coming back for probably the last summer in a long time because the space that the butterfly exhibit is in right now will actually be incorporated into the Africa exhibit ... It's fantastic. It's a walk-through experience so you'll have butterflies flying around you, landing on you, ... we'll have hundred in there ... Zoo Days is coming up featuring Dora the Explorer (May 20).
What's the conservation fund?
This year, we have developed the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund. A lot of zoos, or places similar, have conservation funds, but what makes ours different is that it's not optional. Anybody who visits the zoo, 25 cents of their admission fee goes into the conservation fund, so it's our visitors who are funding this conservation fund. So at the end of the year, we hope to raise $55,000 to $60,000, and organizations can apply for that money to do research, education, as long as it has something to do with animals that we have at the zoo or in our master plan. We have a community panel that will narrow it down to six, and then the final choose will be turned over to the community. The community will vote where they want that money to go.
What marks Zoo Boise's personality?
We will never be the San Diego Zoo ... but we can be a really, really great small zoo. So we always strive to be the best little zoo in the West. And I think what sets us apart is that we are small, and it's very accessible.