Gainesville Daily Register

March 2, 2013

Leopard exhibit perfect fit for Gainesville

By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer

Gainesville — The 129th birthday of Frank Buck Zoo’s namesake is set for celebration Wednesday, March 13, and proceeds from the day will help cultivate what is possibly the Gainesville facility’s most fitting exhibit.

A day-long party for founder Frank Buck spans 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on zoo grounds, with hot dogs and refreshments available through the Frank Buck Zoological Society and special vendors. Entry tickets are $2.

Buying the leopards

The annual birthday celebration generally draws more than 3,000 visitors to Frank Buck Zoo — representing the facility’s busiest day of any year — and this time, the proceeds will directly fund the import of two small spotted leopards scheduled for exhibit near the zoo’s llama habitat.

Construction of the leopard exhibit remains underway; early Friday morning, employees of Gainesville Glass installed a panel donated by company owner Brian Winters.

Despite the donated resources, the animals themselves have been no easy buy. 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 Friday. “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.”

Cook added that the leopards are small and won’t fall into the category of “man-eating,” which may have made a frightening spectacle for younger visitors.

“We’d never be able to have any big leopards because of that reason,” she said. “These suit the size of our zoo.”

Zoo director Susan Kleven said the availability of leopards for the Gainesville zoo has been slim.

Aside from funding issues, the increasing status among leopards as an endangered species has meant that not even Metroplex-area animal facilities have them available for exhibit.

“The closest is in a zoo in Lufkin,” Kleven said Friday. “They’re very tightly regulated. And so sometimes with these highly endangered species, it takes a lot of relationship-building. It’s been an availability issue as much as anything else, and the spotted leopards certainly fall into that category.”

Frank Buck Zoo, and tourism

The Frank Buck Zoo birthday festival began in 2008. In a 2012 Register story, Cook said the price of tickets plus the facility’s natural attractions make the festivities an easy draw for people with small children.

And in the same story, Kleven concurred — adding that agreeable weather and safe-but-close proximity to the animals are key draws to the March event.

“I think there is an innate interest in animals, whether people are repelled by certain animals or they adore other animals or they’re just fascinated,” Kleven said in 2012, adding that nature can be a powerful replacement for technology. “I think it’s just something that we’re missing in our day-to-day life, being all plugged in. Technology’s a fabulous, wonderful thing, but when you have great weather and an opportunity to get outside and share nature with family, people take advantage of it.”

On Friday, Kleven spoke more on that subject. She said that during a recent trip to Dallas, she attended a zoological festival in Fair Park and promoted the facility from behind a booth.

She was surprised, she said, at how many of the attendees were already aware of Frank Buck Zoo and the city of Gainesville.

“Overwhelmingly, there were so many people who came up to our booth and had been to the zoo or had heard great things,” Kleven said. “There was a much larger awareness of not only the zoo but also where Gainesville was, and so forth. So I think it’s been a great tourism piece for the city of Gainesville. Once people come up to Gainesville, they see it’s not just the zoo. It’s also the downtown area, and all the other things a small town has to offer.”

For more information about the festival, call 668-4539.