SANFORD – It’s been a busy year at the Central Florida Zoo, and likely to get even busier by the fall.
While the zoo at 3755 NW U.S. 17/92 in Sanford is not only offering guests its regular attractions and exhibits, it also has special events coming up, like the Red, White and Zoo weekend on June 30 and July 1, featuring a bounce house, water balls, face painting, animal encounters and kids crafts and games.
By the time summer ends, though, the zoo will be ready to start welcoming in guests to the newest attraction, courtesy of a boy and girl moving in there soon.
“On Labor Day, we’re anticipating opening the otter exhibit,” said Joe Montisano, the chief executive officer of the zoo. “These are two North American otters, and we’ll be able to see them swim and move around.”
While Central Florida’s tourism and hospitality industry is showing strong signs of having shaken off the effects of the national recession and the housing market crash, and is even leading the way toward new job creation, along with the field of health care.
But for the Central Florida Zoo, there never really was a noticeable downturn, Montisano said. After all, the zoo offers far more affordable admission price than the large theme parks, making it an appealing alternative for families trying to stretch every dollar, he said.
“We’re kind of recession-proof, in a way,” Montisano said. “Zoos in general do really well when the economy is good, and they do really well when the economy isn’t good. We haven’t seen a downturn here because of the economy.”
That steady flow of visitors has also enabled the zoo to do something else: expand, and offer new attractions. One of them is that otter exhibit. The two otters are coming to Sanford from the Sarasota Jungle Gardens zoo, and the other from a zoo in North Carolina.
“The boy is already here,” Montisano said. “He’s no problem. He was hand-raised. He has to be quarantined for 30 days. We’re required to do that just to be sure the animal doesn’t have some exotic disease, which of course they never do.”
The otter exhibit is being built now, in anticipation of the Labor Day opening.
“It’s a new piece next to all the cats where the cat exhibits area is,” Montisano said. “It’s going to look like the creek bed out of the St. John’s River, like a mud bank. There’s two big windows looking into it. On the ground level, you’ll see them playing in the water, and then from the back, you get another view of them.”
The Central Florida Zoo decided to add this attraction because visitors just love watching otters, Montisano said.
“They’re very popular with our guests,” Montisano said. “They’re a great exhibit animal.”
And not the only new ones coming to the zoo, he added. By the spring of 2013, the zoo is opening a second new exhibit, this one devoted to rhinos.
“It will be for the Greater One-Horned Indian Rhino,” Montisano said. “There’s four species of rhino, and that’s one of them. That’s probably going to open in early 2013. We’re probably going to shoot for an opening around Spring Break.”
The rhinos exhibit will replace the one previously devoted to elephants, he said.
“We had the elephants move out,” he said. “One of our elephants died a while ago, and we moved the other one to South Florida.”
Looking for an animal to replace the elephants, the zoo opted for rhinos, which are badly in need of protection worldwide, Montisano said.
“Rhinos are very extinct,” he said. “Their horns are believed to have medicinal and magical powers, so they’re being killed off in large numbers for those horns. It’s horrible for the animals and they’re going to go extinct because they sell for $20,000 a horn. We’re really crying out for a new place to host rhinos.”
Zoos, Montisano added, have a Species Survival Plan to help protect those animals facing extinction.
“All animals are given a Species Survival Plan,” he said. “Each one of the zoos get together, and every one has their own group of SSPs.” That’s how they settled on opening a rhino exhibit – to help assist in the survival of this important animal, he said.
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