Zoo is pride of plains

If there wasn’t something in the water, there definitely was something in the community imagination: The early ’70s saw the birth of local assets such as the Wichita River Festival, Music Theatre of Wichita, the Wichita Jazz Festival and, 40 years ago today, the Sedgwick County Zoo.

It’s hard to believe now that the last, founded on a commitment “to interpret nature for the layman,” opened in a former milo field in 1971 with just its American and Asian farms and 117 animals.

Now, the Sedgwick County Zoo is the state’s top outdoor family tourist attraction, drawing more than half a million visitors a year. It also is among the top 10 zoos in the nation in acreage and the top 20 in species variety — with more than 2,500 individual animals of nearly 400 species. Accredited since 1981, the zoo never ceases to improve itself as it amazes visitors, adding the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, the Cargill Learning Center, the Cessna Penguin Cove and the Downing Gorilla Forest over just the past decade.

As Mark Reed, the zoo’s respected executive director since 1991, told the Sedgwick County commissioners Wednesday: “We have a world-class zoo here for our community to enjoy.”

Still, it can take visiting other zoos to appreciate the care, conservation and long-running community dedication that have made the Sedgwick County Zoo such a spacious, naturalistic celebration of wildlife. Especially with Sedgwick County having cut funding to the zoo in its latest budget by 6.6 percent, necessitating staff cuts and likely higher fees, the community should not take this cherished attraction for granted, though.

The easiest way to pay homage to the community’s zoological jewel and its founders in this 40th anniversary year is to pay it a visit — either while admission is free this Saturday and Sunday to mark the milestone, at the fundraiser Zoobilee on Sept. 10, or on one of the other 362 days a year it’s open.

Happy birthday to the zoo, and congratulations and thanks to the Sedgwick County Zoological Society. To borrow the name of its beloved lion exhibit, the Sedgwick County Zoo is the pride of the plains.