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Opening day at zoo to be filled with smiles

Updated, new exhibits await children, adults as gates open April 22

New exhibits await visitors when Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo opens for the 2023 season on Saturday, April 22.
Joshua Schipper

Joshua Schipper

Whatzup Features Writer

Published April 12, 2023

Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo will roar back to life on April 22.

To help kick off the 2023 season, the zoo will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the singing of the national anthem, and music from DJ Trend and the Maplewood Show Choir.

“(People) want to get back to the zoo,” Executive Director Rick Schuiteman said. “They want to have fun. They’re excited to be outdoors again.”

What’s new?

As always, the zoo has new surprises in store for visitors, and Schuiteman highlighted a handful of them in a recent interview with Whatzup.

“What they’re going to notice over at the tiger exhibit is that now we have beautiful new rock work and a beautiful pool that the tigers can lie in and enjoy,” he said. “Over at the swamp monkey exhibit, they’re going to notice that we’ve redone the front mesh. It’s a whole new glass panel, so you can view the animals so much better.”

This season will also help families cross chicken feeding off their bucket lists. 

“A couple years ago, we added stingray feeding, and guests really love to be able to feed the stingrays,” Schuiteman said. “We obviously already do the giraffe feeding and the goat feeding, so this year, we’re adding the chicken feeding.”

As far as new animals go, a sloth named Benedict will make his appearance once temperatures warm up. According to Schuiteman, guests will be able to visit Benedict in the central part of the zoo.

Along with Benedict, you can expect some other new sights.

“Now, we’re not going to open it until Memorial Day weekend, but it’s called Red Panda Ridge, and it’s going to house four adorable red pandas,” he said. “It’s also going to have a muntjac (deer) living in one of the habitats.”

Secret to success

With all of the changes over the years, how does the zoo balance new attractions with the nostalgia of returning to something guests experienced as a child?

“We want to make sure that we try to keep things fresh and new, another reason to come back to the zoo,” Schuiteman said. “And we want people to feel like, when you come to the zoo, it’s familiar to you and you know some of the animals and you know some of these experiences that you might have had when you were a child. But at the same time, there’s a lot of new things to see. New things to explore. So, it’s really just finding that balance to be able to stay fresh and new and exciting.”

Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo often ranks among the best in the nation. Schuiteman attributes a number of factors to this feat, citing the atmosphere as one of the top contributors. 

“It’s comfortable for families,” he said. “It’s beautiful. The landscaping is stunning. When you go out to see the exhibits, the exhibits are well-maintained. They’re respectful to the animals, they’re natural and organic. I love that kids can just walk up to most of the exhibits on their own, they don’t need to be picked up by a parent or adult or you know, kid on the shoulders, the kid can just walk up.” 

In addition to child-accessible viewing of the animals, the zoo intentionally places its graphics at eye level for children, so they can read about the animals or look at pictures. 

The variety and diversity of exhibits, Schuiteman said, is another key to success. He recalled that people tend to be thrown off when he says that it is a “children’s zoo,” but has everything from lions to tigers — even giraffes. 

“People are surprised by that. They don’t expect it,” he said. “I think that makes it extra special when people come to the zoo.” 

The impeccable service that employees provide for guests also contributes to the annual and continuing successes of the regional landmark.

“We work hard to make sure our guests feel like they’re taken care of to make sure that they have a great day at the zoo,” Schuiteman said.

Team effort

Guests are extremely important to the future of the zoo as well. 

“We are a self-sustaining zoo,” Schuiteman said. “We don’t take any taxpayer dollars. We are one of less than 10 zoos in the country that doesn’t take taxpayer dollars. Our memberships are important to us. Sponsorships, donations, admissions, those are all the ways that we can make the zoo better and improve the zoo and make those changes. I’m just so grateful to this community, to the Fort Wayne community, because they’ve been so generous and giving.”

The final and perhaps most overlooked function of the zoo that contributes to its successes is its dedication to animals. 

“We are a zoo, we are responsible for 1,600 animals, and our team is so dedicated to the care of the animals,” Schuiteman said. “I think our guests can see that when they come to the zoo.”

This dedication expands far beyond caring for the animals. One dollar from every admission ticket goes to conservation efforts and to partner organizations around the world.

It’s this care and dedication of the staff that has stood out to Schuiteman since taking the job following the retirement of Jim Anderson in 2020. 

“They are all in,” he said of the staff, which includes volunteers. “They love taking care of the animals. They love sharing the animals with the guests. They love all the conservation work that they do behind the scenes to preserve species, for now and forever. I just love that. They’re so dedicated to that. I think that’s fantastic. I also love that the team is guest-focused. When we open — we’re closed six months out of the year — when we open they’re ready to go. They’re ready to engage. They’re ready to make a difference.”


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