Ever since starting my Newbie adventures, one place that I eagerly wanted to visit has been the Buttonwood Park Zoo. I had never visited this fun attraction nor had any clue what was inside this mysterious spot. In fact, a few non-New Bedford locals made this attraction out to be nothing more than a petting zoo. (I’m happy to report that this was far from the the case.)
Finally, with the help of development and marketing officer Sarah Henry, I got the exclusive private tour with Assistant Director Shara Rapoza, who has been at the zoo for 26 years, starting as a high school seasonal laborer.
Buckle up for another wild adventure!
127th anniversary of Buttonwood Park Zoo
Celebrating its 127th anniversary, the Buttonwood Park Zoo has been a staple in the New Bedford community. In 1996, The 12th oldest zoo in America closed down for four years to undergo a $10 million renovation. In 2003, the zoo became nationally accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, cited as “One of the finest small zoos in the United States.”
In summer 2016, a new master plan was unveiled to again redevelop the zoo and introduce guests to more endangered specifies over the next decade. One big fact I learned from Assistant Director Rapoza was that most of the animals have been with the zoo for decades and as much as they would love for them all to live forever, most of the animals may not have much time left. The zoo is looking for newer animals every day — but it’s tough to integrate younger animals with more seasoned ones.
In 2017, the zoo unveiled the Rainforest, Rivers and Reefs section, which is a conservation-based center featuring numerous several small endangered primate species — including a recent addition, a baby sloth.
My spirit animals are here
As much as I would like to tell you every single detail of our trip here are the highlights:
A little-known fact about me is that my spirit animals are sloths and owls. In fact, my desk is littered in owl and sloth tokens and figurines. The sloth represents “being grounded” and “breathing in the moment.” Similar to owls, they gather wisdom and value from the trees. Owls are about intuitive development and trusting mysteries that are unexplained.
So, of course, I had to see sloths, Sandy and Bernardo. Sandy recently had her first child — which we got to see hanging with its mom. Super cute!
Touring the rainforest
The rainforest building had a fun vibe. There are several giant exhibits in which primates and birds run rampant. Rapoza pointed out secret tunnels throughout the structure allowing the animals to roam different enclosures.
More:At 125, Buttonwood Park Zoo looks back on a storied history
For example, a pygmy marmoset might spend its morning indoors and then switch to an outside enclosure by the afternoon. It’s all accessible through a community chute that can be closed off and controlled by the staff.
Among all the exhibits, the moon jellyfish and garden eel exhibits were my favorite. I could stare at the jellyfish, floating around in a continuous circle, for an hour marveling at their intriguing ocean ballet.
The most friendly animal in the Rainforest Room, the green aracari, came right up to the window to greet us. It seemed to be listening to our conversation and seemed excited to interact with guests.
Rapoza gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the rainforest exhibit which had giant water tanks for the ocean creatures and a kitchen to prepare all the food. We saw staff members cutting up vegetables while another was getting ready to serve up some crawly grubs.
Elephants and otters and bears, oh my!
We of course had to meet Asian elephants Emily and Ruth, the oldest members of the zoo. Emily has been in the park since 1968, and just celebrated her 62nd birthday.
By far the largest exhibit, the girls have quite a lot of roaming room. And it is said that they once visited a Dunkin Donuts Drive Thru (I’m not kidding).
PHOTOS: Buttonwood Zoo through the years
Another fun exhibit was Toby the American black bear who also came to the glass window to greet us. It’s hard to believe he can survive in this heat with all that thick black fur, but we were assured that it’s actually very insulating for him and he was probably cooler than us.
But I think of all the exhibits, I was the most jealous of the North American river otters who were having “the time of their lives” in their beachy enclosure. Probably the cutest animals in the zoo, I could watch these three play all day! And get this, they are two males and a female named Dunkin, Donut and Dani. SUPER CUTE!
By the way, speaking of cute, although we didn’t take a ride — there’s also the Black Bear Express, the carousel train that roams the grounds for families that need a break from walking. And also, the “Wildlife Carousel” looked like a fun attraction for an end-of-the-day ride.
Harbor seals: Meeting Yellow and Blue
Like the elephants, the Atlantic harbor seals have also been part of the Buttonwood Park Zoo for decades. Our tour guide has a special place in her heart for Yellow and Blue, the beloved mother-son pair. Yellow has been at the zoo since 1983, and gave birth to Blue in 2003.
We had the privilege of entering into the harbor seal exhibit and was immediately greeted by Yellow at the water’s edge. Yellow was delighted to meet us — Blue says he reads my Newbie column. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past him — he occasionally paints artwork for fundraisers. Rapoza says sea lions get credited for being intelligent but the seals are just as smart.
Animal ambassadors: Chatting with Molly and playing with Pecan
The animal ambassador program is a way to stimulate, appreciate and connect visitors with animals in the zoo by featuring a more hands-on approach or allowing up-close-and-personal experiences with specific species. Ambassadors are scattered around the zoo with stations to allow visitors to touch pawprints or hold a tooth.
We first met Pecan the armadillo, who was frantically running around a small enclosure near the entrance of the zoo, while Melanie (a staff member) shared facts about this adorable little dynamo, who joined the zoo in April.
Another good friend of Rapozas is Molly, an orphaned coyote pup who came to the zoo from Minnesota in July 2014. As we approached, Molly recognized Rapoza and howled in excitement.
Hidden honey bees
Rapozas let us in on a hidden exhibit that she says is often overlooked at Buttonwood Park Zoo. Near Molly as well as the bald eagles exhibit is a large bee box which is home to a thousand bees.
Did you know 90% of crops are dependent on honey bees? The zoo recently attended a beekeeping course by the Bristol Country Beekeepers Association which is working to prevent bee colonies from disappearing across the globe. Next time you’re in the zoo, look for the hive sign before crossing the bridge into the farm area.
Farm animals and Charlie’s Nature Play
A section of the zoo is dedicated to farm animals such as cows, hogs and horses. It also a great place to beat the heat, as Charlie’s Nature Play is an area with watery activities.
Opened in 2018, the area is named after the late Charles E. Winterhalter of Dartmouth who was known for his philanthropy and positive spirt. The nature play is designed with nine play stations: splash, create, build, invent, play, climb, dig, imagine and grow.
It’s also worth mentioning that while in this area, we saw a few workers about to finish an enclosure. Up on a ladder, assisting with a fence installation, was the zoo’s director Keith Lovett. Lovett joined as executive director of the zoo in 2012. He previously worked as the assistant zoo director at the Palm Beach Zoo.
Rapoza explained that seeing Lovett up on a ladder in 90 degree weather described him to a T. That’s the kind of director he is, hands-on and caring for the zoo at all times. He looks out for the animals and is always trying to find a way to succeed even if deemed impossible.
Touring the zoo’s kitchen
Rapoza, next, brought us to the best place to visit on a 92-degree day: the kitchen. She gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the large walk-in refrigerator and freezer that stores all the food for the animals.
Inside the food preparation area, there are designated bucket colors so carnivores and herbivores aren’t mixed up when preparing meals. Everything seemed organized perfectly based on quantity to distribute to all the animals properly.
We saw meat, fish, leaves, bamboo and insects. And most of they prey comes frozen — so no live critters such as mice are fed to the animals.
Inside the zoo’s veterinary hospital
Rapoza gave us an exclusive tour of the veterinary hospital. Not many zoos can say they have a building equipped with an X-ray machine, lab and surgical room. It has been an amazing resource for the Buttonwood Park Zoo to be able to perform tests on site and if there is an emergency, the zoo can get an animal the care it needs, pronto.
Although we didn’t meet the full-time veterinarian (she was on vacation), her name is Dr. Erica Lipanovich.
‘A dream come true’:Buttonwood Park Zoo’s new vet is SouthCoast native
We got to see where animals are quarantined before welcomed into the zoo. I can report, but sworn to complete secrecy in regards to their species, that some “Newbies” will be announced soon and worth a visit to meet.
Saying hello to Compass
We ended the tour in Rapoza’s office so we could meet the star attraction: Compass! If you don’t know about Compass, basically she is a pigeon who wears a diaper, lives in the office area and reigns over the space.
Originally found hanging around at the zoo’s entrance after behind injured, the staff took her under their wing, nursed her back to health. She has been part of the zoo’s Animal Ambassador and Zoomobile program for the past five years.
Boss bird of Buttonwood:Pigeon takes zoo staffer under her wing
When Compass is not working, she is known to be in the kitchen trying to sneak a bite of someone’s lunch, playing on people’s desks and sometimes going as far as typing on the computer to send e-mails to her pigeon pals. (I feel like I’ve written Compass’ pigeon-match.com dating profile.)
All in all, the love coming from the Buttonwood Park Zoo for animals is infectious. It makes me want to volunteer now! It’s a beautiful vibe that I had the pleasure to witness while touring every nook and cranny of the zoo. I’m super thankful for this incredible experience.
And what’s so special about this place is that even though I saw it all, every day is apt to be a new experience. So, I will be back for more! …or just to watch Dunkin, Donut and Dani.
…Thanks to everyone who reached out to me about Mah Jongg in the SouthCoast. I found a few Fairhaven and Fall River spots. Any New Bedford Mah Jongg players out there?
…Hope you enjoyed National Ice Cream Day on Sunday. If you missed it? Check out the seven SouthCoast sweet spots I had the opportunity to taste.
…July 29 is National Lasagna Day! Maybe I should try a few spots. Any recommendations?
I’m the Newbie in New Bedford….and I want to see it all! Tell me where I should go next weekend! Send a suggestion to [email protected] Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.