Archive for Saturday, June 7, 1997


June 7, 1997


Animal high jinx and some uncommon exhibits keep the Topeka Zoological Park in view.

The Topeka Zoological Park, located in Topeka's Gage Park, may be smaller, but its reputation touts it as "World Famous."

The zoo sees around 200,000 to 250,000 visitors a year, said Director Mike LaRue.

Historical incidents shed some light on why the zoo, opened in 1933, has gained attention over the years.

When the Animals and Man building opened in 1966, one of the first mammals to arrive was a hippo named Peka Sue. Born in Kansas City, Peka Sue refused to get into the crate bound to Topeka, and upon arrival she refused to get out. The crate was removed from around her.

Another attention grabber was the monkeys, who picked the locks to their enclosures and roamed through the trees in the park. It happened more than once.

Stories aside, the zoo has many exhibits to draw crowds.

LaRue said his favorite exhibit at the zoo is the Hill's Black Bear Woods. The exhibit, completed last fall, was based on the home-space concept. The bears live outside in a simulated natural habitat and do what they want to do. They stayed outside all winter, even though a building was also provided.

"They chose to stay outside, which means they accepted it as their home," LaRue said. "Based on their behavior, we considered it a success."

Community asset

Conservation is an important task for all zoos, and the Topeka Zoo has worked with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to hatch American golden eagles and release them in the wild. To date, 55 chicks have been hatched.

The zoo also has the most Bornean orangutans in any North American zoo. Of the 75 orangutans in captivity on the continent, eight are at the Topeka Zoo. LaRue said more are on the way.

Patrons agree that the Topeka Zoo is something special.

"I think it's a great zoo for the size of the city," said Mickey Hannah of Perry. "It's something Topeka can be proud of."

Mark Sprague, Perry, agrees.

"The rain forest is really nice," Sprague said. "They did a really nice job of saving everything after the fire."

A 1992 fire in the zoo's Tropical Rain Forest building caused major damage. The building was rebuilt in 1993 with several enhancements to help prevent future fires.

The tropics and beyond

Attractions at the Topeka Zoo include:

  • Pachyderm Yard: a new exhibit that features elephants. Visitors can follow the sidewalk around the exhibit to catch the elephants enjoying their new habitat.
  • Animals and Man features animals such as giraffes, hippos, monkeys and tortoises.
  • Tropical Rain Forest: one of the first of its kind that incorporates and interrelates animals, plants, habitat settings, climatic conditions and interpretative graphics. A path takes visitors through lush vegetation inhabited by mammals, birds and reptiles from the tropics.

LaRue said a community survey revealed that the Tropical Rain Forest was voted the best exhibit at the zoo.

The Rain Forest is also a rarity. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., only 55 of the 151 accredited zoos have rain forest exhibits.

  • Discovering Apes: A glass tunnel leads through gorilla country where the great primates are on all sides and even on the top of the tunnel. A tree house also allows visitors to view Bornean orangutans at treetop level.
  • Lions Pride: A large natural exhibit complete with tall grass and a winding trail gives viewers the chance to observe the lions.
  • Security Benefit Children's Zoo: A petting area of domestic animals and play area give children a chance to explore.

For a smaller zoo, LaRue believes that Topeka has a respectable number of animals.

"We're fortunate to have a large collection of charismatic animals," LaRue said. "Normally you have to go to a larger zoo to see giraffes, elephants and gorillas."

Admission to the Topeka Zoo is free to children under 3, children ages 3-12 and senior citizens is $2, and for those 13 and older it's $3.50. The zoo is open every day of the year, except Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information call 913-272-5281.

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