Nancy Rifken grew fond of the elephants at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park when she came to Syracuse more than two decades ago. “I have a particular love for elephants,” she said. “They really are very intelligent animals, I just love them.” As early as 1985, the zoo, 1 Conservation Place, has housed elephants, including Babe, a female born in the wild in Pakistan. “It was awful. She was just chained to the ground; it was horrible,” Rifken remembered.
But it’s been different in recent years, thanks to public and private donors to the zoo. “After they rebuilt the zoo and had a natural building for the elephants, things are much, much, much better,” Rifkin said. Her profound love for animals, shared with her husband Jerome, led Rifken to become a lead donor in the non-profit organization Friends of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s latest capital campaign, “Conserving What We Love: The Campaign for Elephants and Primates at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.”
The threefold goals of the campaign, launched April 15, include building the Asian Elephant Preserve, which will make the zoo “one of the top five largest elephant zoos in the nation,” said Janet Agostini, president of Friends of the Zoo. It will feature an indoor facility, future home of Targa, Mali and little Chuck, three Asian elephants temporarily relocated to the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario. They are expected back in Syracuse sometime this summer.
The other campaign projects are Primate Park, an outdoor exhibit for several primate species, and The Gathering, “the perfect gathering place for picnics, events, private parties and helps generate revenue for the zoo,” Agostini said. The Gathering is the courtyard area you enter when you leave the interior part of the zoo, where the gazebo is located.
A tightly knit partnership between Onondaga County and Friends of the Zoo supports the fundraising. The county, which authorized the $8.5 million renovation projects in 2007, is funding 80 percent of the cost. The remaining $1.6 million will be raised by the Friends.
Having started a quiet fundraising campaign last year, the non-profit organization has already amassed $922,275, about 58 percent of their goal, Agostini said. Having made the capital campaign public, they hope to raise the remaining $677,725. More on that later.
Another leading donor of the Friends’ capital campaign is M&T Bank, which gave $50,000 to fund the construction of an Asian elephant biofact station. Set to be located at the entrance of the elephant exhibit, a portion of which formerly held the bison, the station will educate visitors about the highly endangered Asian elephant species.
“There are fewer Asian elephants in the wild than there are seats in the Carrier Dome,” Agostini noted, 35,000 vs. 49,250. “These projects take us another step in the right direction of connecting people to the natural world and our appreciation for it.” A biofact station will include a permanent display of artifacts, including tusks and a boot devised to treat an elephant’s injured foot.
“The donation was basically to support the zoo, which supports the community,” said Allen Naples, regional president for M&T Bank’s Central New York region. “The zoo is a wonderful place. The elephants are great, all the animals. It’s just wonderful to see all these young children and parents around. It’s just the right thing to do.”
County Executive Joanie Mahoney emphasized that Save the Rain, the county’s campaign to educate the public and improve Syracuse’s green infrastructure, will incorporate green principles into the Friends’ projects.
The program has greened the zoo’s primate exhibit and courtyard by installing rain barrels and cisterns to harvest water runoff from rooftops; porous pavements (porous asphalt, concrete and paving stones or bricks that allow rain water to infiltrate the soil below) in the courtyard; and a rain garden next to the outdoor primate exhibit.
“What this really means to us is not that we have just another exhibit open, but we’re building exclusively with our animals in mind, with our public in mind,” said Rosamond Gifford Zoo director Charles Doyle. “The county and the Friends are helping us to ensure that our animals have some of the best care in the world. We’re very proud of that. This is another step closer to the day when we get to stand right here and look outside to see the elephants.”
Syracusans can help the three elephants make their 240-mile journey back home by buying miles, at $10 apiece, through a campaign online at www.rosamondgiffordzoo.org/ buyamile, or at the zoo. Community members can also raise money to support the elephants’ journey. “We invite schools to get involved and do their own fundraisers,” Agostini said.
“We have Smith Road Elementary School having a concert on May 16. Their choir is doing a fundraiser for us.”
Since school’s out this week for spring break, the zoo has prepared daily educational events for students that started April 17. Upcoming events include Zoopardy, a Jeopardy-styled game about elephants, held Wednesday, April 20, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. just outside the Jungle Café. Throughout the day on Thursday, April 21, patrons can see patas monkeys, squirrels, lemurs and goldenlion tamarins at a Primate Party and enjoy primatethemed treats. On Friday, April 22, which happens to be Earth Day, Siri and Romani, two of the Zoo’s Asian elephants, will show off their painting skills at 11:15 a.m. The lemurs will channel Picasso by creating surreal paintings using their paws at 2:30 p.m.
On Saturday, April 23, animals throughout the zoo will get eggs and egg-shaped treats during Animal Egg-stravaganza. The week’s activities will end Sunday, April 24, with a “Guess the Number of Jelly Beans in the Jar” contest, from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The winner will receive an “Adopt-an-Animal” package, worth $60, and will become an honorific zoo parent to one of the animals.
Trunk space: The outdoor portion of the new elephant facilities at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo includes plenty of room to roam.