By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Frank Buck Zoo’s Wednesday celebration of its namesake’s 129th birthday showed signs of a record-setting turnout.
Thousands of visitors flocked to the facility grounds in weather that began as cooler than organizers wanted — and then warmed up later in the day.
Zoo Director Susan Kleven said the annual birthday party usually draws at least 3,000 visitors at discount entry fees, and that this year, the usual number appears to have been topped.
“We were able to get a big, long line out of the park and into the zoo very quickly,” she said. “And, also, people are kind of going home and tweeting or Twittering and telling others about our $2 day. So it’s been good feedback and a great turnout.”
Kleven added that visitors — especially during Wednesday’s Frank Buck celebration — aren’t merely locals. She said people regularly make efforts to visit the Gainesville zoo following trips from Oklahoma, Wichita Falls, Sherman and Metroplex cities such as Frisco.
“Any time that families can get outside and in nature and experience the animals and the plants and experience the good weather together, it’s just such a break from our everyday hectic technology,” she said.
Wednesday’s refreshment proceeds, garnered by the Frank Buck Zoological Society, will help fund the import of two small spotted leopards set for exhibit near the zoo’s llama habitat.
On March 1, Karen Cook of the Frank Buck Zoological Society said the leopards are expected to cost roughly $15,000 as a pair.
“We’re hoping to have the exhibit built soon so that they won’t have to go into quarantine for any length of time,” she said. “It’s the mascot of Gainesville, and it’s the first animal in our new Asia exhibit since Asia is where Frank Buck did a lot of his hunting.”
And as of Wednesday, Cook said, the leopards are already purchased. She explained that recent donations and Society funds made the purchase possible, and that any concession money raised during the birthday event will result in a reimbursement for those expenses.
Cook added that the leopard pair is already on exhibit at the Gainesville zoo, though not many people have seen them.
“They just got put in there, so they’re a little scared and timid because they’re in a new place,” she said.
Dave Kleven, the director’s husband, visited Wednesday’s event dressed as Frank Buck, complete with pith helmet and safari garb. He helped present a pair of birthday cakes in tribute to the founder that were later shared by visitors.
“They named the zoo after Frank Buck because he was born here in Gainesville, but he also inspired generations of people to care more about animals,” he said. “I’d say a good number of people who are working in zoos around the world were inspired by people like Jim Fowler and Marlon Perkins, from ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.’ And they were inspirations for people like Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin and people you see on ‘Animal Planet.’”
But, he added, those early pioneers such as Fowler or Perkins were likely inspired by Frank Buck himself.
“It’s kind of one of these things where we’re honoring history,” Dave Kleven said. “If you love music, you can’t love music and not know who The Beatles were. And if you work with animals or love animals and care about the natural world, you can’t do that without remembering the people who were first awe-inspired and then shared that with the world. And that’s what Frank Buck has done.”