Busch Gardens Williamsburg opens in just eight days, and we are getting very excited. There are a number of changes and upgrades coming that everyone wants to see. Well guess what? Yesterday, the fabulous Emily Phillips gave Zachary, Luke, and me a sneak peek at what is happening inside the park. We want to thank everyone from Busch Gardens who took time out of their very busy schedules to chat with us, and gave Luke the opportunity to capture the fantastic images below. We also want to share everything we learned with y’all. So, between now and Pass Member Preview Day look for articles from that trip.
A Look Inside Zoo
Zachary and I, after much debate, decided to start our series of posts the exact same way we started our tour: with the Zoological Department. Wait, what? You guys got into the park for a construction tour, and spent your time with the animal keepers? Oh yes we did.
We care about the rides and the hamlets, but SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s mission is conservation and protection. Much more than in Florida, the amazing things happening on the zoo side go largely unnoticed, and for me the animals are part of what makes the park special. Trust me, we came away really glad that we specifically asked Emily to get us a peek into what’s new in the zoology department.
We met with Tim Smith, the Manager of Zoological Operations, and Kendell Thomas, Supervisor of the Animal Ambassador Team. BGW is incredibly lucky to have both of them. Tim, who has been with SEAS for 19 years, came to Williamsburg last April from Busch Gardens Tampa. For those of you who tracked the introduction of the cheetah cubs into the park in Tampa, Tim was the one who selected their dog companion, and was one of the keepers who got to take both pairs of cheetahs home, as part of their rearing.
Talking to Tim, he seems to understand and support the company’s animal training programs. He is also very passionate about SEAS’s strict policies limiting animal training to positive reinforcement. Their animals do not learn tricks for our entertainment; they learn to assist in their own medical and safety programs, while we learn what kinds of enrichment they prefer. All of this gushing is to say that I think our animals will thrive under his care.
Likewise, Kendell, who has been with BGW for some time was clearly very knowledgeable and experienced as a keeper. The Ambassador Animals she brought out seemed very comfortable in her care, and she clearly understood them and their needs. The lizard, who hung out with us for the first part of our discussion, certainly seemed relaxed and calm.
Tim and Kendell were happy to talk about what’s new in the zoo. The most important thing that Tim said, from my perspective, is that he sees the park’s animal collection growing over the next few years. Specifically, he wants to expand the “forward-facing” (interacting with guests) components of the department.
Kendell also brought out a new addition to the park’s bird collection, a tawny frogmouth, who was acquired from the San Antonio Zoo through the American Zoological Association. Because she is an Australian species, she is not covered under new migratory bird legislation. As a result, unlike the eagles and the park’s other native migratory birds, in controlled environments, guests will be able to pet her.
But new birds are not the only plans on the table. Tim explained that he sees the core of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s collection as encompassing the horses, eagles, and wolves. He hopes to build around that strong base, including increasing the number of Clydesdales. He really seemed to understand the “soul” (for lack of a better word) of the Old Country, and wants to enhance what has already been built.
While the zoology team is excited to introduce new animals to the park, all additions will have to be made based on conservation concerns and species survival plans. He used the example of Tampa acquiring Spike in 2013. While he is a fantastic addition from the guest perspective, his real importance to SEAS was in his potential to mate with one of Tampa’s herd, increasing both the Asian Elephant population and furthering the captive genetic diversity of the species.
Tim also told us about the new sod that y’all might have noticed in Wolf Valley last year. Apparently the wolves loved their new turf so much, that the park decided to re-sod again this year. He discovered that the new, soft grass was so comfortable, that the wolves would stretch out in the middle and happily take a nap. It improved their quality of life and provided guests with a much better view of the gorgeous canines. This year, the park has also re-sodded the fields outside the Highland Stable for the park’s sheep, horses, and cows.
We made a point of checking out the new grass and it looks comfortable for the animals and greatly improves the appearance of all three areas. The one possible downside is that the cows may not be out on display as early this year to give the grass a chance to…do whatever grass does.
We asked about a few of our other favorite animals. The crested porcupine’s holding area was rebuilt, so he was able to stay in Williamsburg this winter. Last year, he was moved to Tampa during the off-season. The serval, who is now 11 years old (!), is happy and doing very well. Given the terrible treatment he received, before BGW rescued him, he deserves a great life.
The sheep will be back and munching away under Verbolten again this year. Using them to “mow” in hard to reach places has always struck me a brilliant idea: it is better for the environment and it provides enrichment for the sheep, themselves. Plus: it is adorable and really cool to see from the coaster. Finally, the Lady Ross Turaco is learning to fly to a person’s hand, which the park hopes will be a great demonstration for Busch Gardens guests.
The last thing we discussed were the shows and tours. There will be new, baby rats in the Secret Life of Predators. They hope to introduce new presentations in the Conservation Station paddock. They will also continue to run the Clydesdales & Collies tour and the Wolf Behind-the-Scenes tour. Another big piece of news is that the park’s old Keeper for a Day experience will return for 2016!
Overall it looks as if the Zoological Department is in great hands and we are really looking forward to seeing it brought back to (and maybe exceeding) its former greatness. Once again, a huge thank you to Emily, Tim, and Kendell for letting us meet two of their animals and for spending time with us, talking about my favorite department at BGW.