March 25, 2023


Fascinating Talks of the Planet

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The Lovely Creatures that I saw in Memphis

The Lovely Creatures that I saw in Memphis

Memphis Zoo in the mid-1980s had never been able to exceed its annual 400,000 visitor attendance ceiling and was operationally subsidised 75% by the City of Memphis. After an ambitious master plan that promised to unite modern Memphis with its namesake, Memphis of the Antiquities, a series of dramatic exhibits
evolved. Starting at its entry where visitors could move through the ancient portals of the Temple of Memphis to the hypostyle court Nile exhibit, Orientation Plaza and Cat House Café, the 5,000-year link between modern and ancient Memphis was established, giving excitement to all that came to visit. The exciting columns and detailing were not as grand as found in stone at the original temples, but for the average person who may never see these temples and hieroglyphs as they are in Egypt, the experience at Memphis Zoo’s entry complex took them to faraway lands that they might never have the experience of seeing first-hand in
their lifetime. Well received by everyone, the success led to a series of new exhibits, with half of the construction costs coming from philanthropic gifts.

We had created something of value, which was recognized by daily visitors as well as potential philanthropists. The Giant Panda exhibit (the last in the USA) tells the story of China itself, its art and architecture, culture and history, and introduces the giant pandas in an elegant and meaningful way. The Northwest Passage exhibit presents the journey of the First Nations Peoples across the land bridge of Beringia 10,000 years ago, featuring polar bears, sea lions and a host of animals as discovered by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl and other tribes. Their art and architecture were displayed in equal measure, making the exhibit a unique experience in both daytime use and after-hour events.

The final piece of the puzzle was the creation of the Teton Trek exhibit, a grand but simple exhibit featuring grizzly bears, wolves and elk. The centrepiece, Old Faithful Lodge, created with heavy timber detailing, broad porches and rocking chairs, allows the visitor to sit and enjoy the animals for hours, effectively creating a totally immersive experience that would otherwise require a 1,500-mile journey instead of a 15-minute drive for some from nearby neighbourhoods.
It is this “transporting the visitor to the believable in situ experience” that helps to build the emotional bond through connectedness to the experience to underpin the commitment to conservation of these wonderful wild things and places.

Today, Memphis Zoo receives 1.1 million visitors annually and is 97% self-sufficient. Much of this success comes from non-traditional revenues and after-hour events and parties that some zoos have dabbled with; however, underestimating (monetarily and emotionally) the value of such activities. To book a wedding
at the iconic Teton Trek Old Faithful Lodge, one must be prepared to wait 18 months for that reservation! It is hard to believe that kind of attraction value in a zoo. With all of these visitors using the facilities and learning more about the facilities’ mission and vision, the more opportunity to develop more advocates. As a result of this success, Memphis Zoo annually contributes over US$ 1 million to conservation.

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