Christmas Day in Wichita a merry one for zoo animals, their visitors

Vera Buchanan, 6, watches as Tsar, an 18-month-old amur tiger, yawns during a Christmas day outing with her family at the Sedgwick County Zoo. (Dec. 25, 2014)
Vera Buchanan, 6, watches as Tsar, an 18-month-old amur tiger, yawns during a Christmas day outing with her family at the Sedgwick County Zoo. (Dec. 25, 2014) Wichita Eagle

Christmas Day is a quiet one in Wichita.

Offices are vacant. Parking lots are empty. And not much of anything is open, save QuikTrip selling $1.97-a-gallon gas, movie theaters, a few bars and a bunch of Asian restaurants.

And the zoo.

Many people don’t realize the Sedgwick County Zoo is open on Christmas, said Steve Fairchild, the zoo’s director of guest services. In fact, it’s open every day of the year except one: when it stages the annual Zoobilee fundraiser in early September each year.

On Christmas Day, the zoo tends to attract a small crowd of around 200 visitors, not bad for a usually chilly December day, Fairchild said. They tend to be out-of-towners visiting Wichita for the holidays or locals who haven’t been to the zoo in years, Fairchild said.

“The crowd we get on Christmas Day is a really interesting crowd,” he said.

On Thursday, the zoo started filling up just after the lunch hour with families in search of some getting-out-of-the-house fun and retired couples in search of some fresh air. And there was plenty of air. Though Thursday was a mild day with lots of sunshine, it was also windy in a hairdo-dismantling sort of way.

It felt good to the Hamill family of Newton, which has made a four-year tradition out of visiting the zoo on Christmas Day. The family, which includes parents Veda and Brad and 21-year-old Bethany, 13-year-old Isaiah and 7-year-old Anna, can remember years when it was so cold they were darting from building to building to retain body heat.

They love the zoo on Christmas, they said, because it’s not crowded.

“It’s a very quiet day to go to the zoo,” Veda said. “The animals are more active, and we’re not in anyone’s way. The little ones can run right in front of the exhibits.”

Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan also has a tradition of bringing his family to the zoo on Christmas.

He was there on Thursday with his son Paul, who lives in Omaha, and two granddaughters, 8-year-old Amelia and 6-year-old Vera.

Though Paul and his girls live in a city with a highly regarded zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, they love Wichita’s – specifically for one attraction.

“Wichita’s giraffe feeding station beats Henry Doorly any day,” Paul said.

Those who visit on Christmas also can see which animals have soft-hearted keepers.

Although the big gift-getting day for the zoo’s residents was a couple of weeks ago, when all the animals got special gifts as part of the annual “Seasons Treatings” event, some keepers can’t help but bring in a treat or two on the actual Christmas.

The tigers, for example, were treated to cow knuckle bones, which they gnaw-gnaw-gnawed throughout the afternoon.

And Stephanie the elephant, who lost her companion Cinda in early November, was treated to some Christmas Peeps marshmallow treats by her keeper.

This is Stephanie’s first Christmas without Cinda in 42 years, and keepers have been watching her closely. Cinda and Stephanie were some of the first animals at Wichita’s zoo, arriving together in 1972. Both were orphans from South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Keepers found Stephanie early that November morning trying to wake Cinda, who had died.

On Christmas afternoon, Stephanie was outside and active, giving visitors with cameras many photo opportunities.

She seems to be doing well, Fairchild said, and her keepers have been bathing her with TLC.

“If anything, the keepers have been overcompensating in attention and care to her,” he said.

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @deniseneil.

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