A Wild Party: Hosted by the Seneca Park Zoo

Photography by Shreya Rathore and Evie Linantud

The Panamanian golden frog, the African black-footed penguin and the Canada lynx — what do all these animals have in common? While they come from around the globe, they can also all be found right here in Rochester at the Seneca Park Zoo!

The zoo, which has been in operation since the late 1800s, is home to these three species, along with over 60 more. If you wanna go wild, this is the place to be!

Sights and Sounds

Open year round, rain or shine, the Seneca Park Zoo is divided into multiple distinct sections.

At the front of the zoo, you’ll find the ECO Center area. Here, various smaller species can be found, with a focus on those native to North America. There are still a few surprises in this section though, as slightly further back, the Amur Tiger exhibit can be found. Go RIT!

In the zoo's next section, you can visit the multiple species that call the Earth's waters their home. In the Rocky Coasts area, you should make sure to check out the multiple underwater viewing stations!

Then, it's off to the A Step Into Africa area. The large African lion and African elephant enclosures are favorites for many visitors. And no, the zebra carcass within the lion enclosure is not real.

Finally, you’ll come to the zoo’s newest section, Animals of the Savanna. This area hosts animals both large, like the Masai giraffe, and small, like the naked mole rat. It also has a well-themed safari area!

For those more COVID-19-conscious, the zoo has put multiple policies into place to protect guests and employees. Buildings are kept at limited capacities, and hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the zoo.

Most importantly though, the entire zoo is — for the time being — set up as one continuous path. Guests walk a certain route towards the back of the zoo, and then walk a separate and distinct path back out.

Of course, there are also a variety of amenities to help scratch any tourist-y itch you may have. Various eateries and play areas scatter the zoo, and a small gift shop located at the front has things such as t-shirts and plushies, along with some more handcrafted items such as soaps and figurines, made both locally and internationally.

Education and Conservation

While it’s easy to think of zoos as nothing more than entertainment venues, for those who work there, they are much more. Zoos today puts a larger emphasis on education and conservation.

Emily Coon is an adjunct instructor in the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences and a former Seneca Park Zoo employee. She provided an insider’s perspective on the purpose of modern-day zoos.

“A big push in zoos right now is to create empathy for the animals and the natural world, which may inspire guests to conserve in areas of their own life as well,” she said.

“A big push in zoos right now is to create empathy for the animals and the natural world.”

Who holds zoos to these lofty goals though? For over 200 organizations, it is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

David Hamilton, the Seneca Park Zoo’s general curator and an adjunct instructor for the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences, describes how the AZA works.

“To be an AZA member, you are saying that you’re going to follow the rules and standards of the organization for lots of things such as animal care, financial records and research,” he said.

It also participates in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan (SSP), which looks to oversee and maintain animal populations, both within captivity and in the wild.

“[SSPs] manage animals collectively for the good of the species, not just the good of certain individual animals or the good of an institution,” Hamilton said.

For animals that are endangered, near extinct or extinct in the wild, SSPs work to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population within captivity. This is a critical need if humanity wants to save some of these species from total extinction.

Along with being a member of the larger AZA, the Seneca Park Zoo also tries to focus on the community it serves.

While guests passively learn in their viewing of the animals, a plethora of programs also encourage more active learning. These numerous programs include things such as ZooCamps, field trips and the ZooMobile.

These programs try to foster a love for animals, and in turn, a passion for conservation.

Past and Future

Throughout the Seneca Park Zoo’s history, there has been a pattern of constant change.

While zoos, as entertainment centers, don’t have spotless track records, the forward thinking that comes with constant change has enabled organizations such as the Seneca Park Zoo to continue providing up-to-date care for its animals.

“We’re always improving things. When we build new things, we build them state-of-the-art ... and we improve what we can of our older exhibits,” Hamilton said.

“We’re always improving things.”

The Seneca Park Zoo’s original main building, built in the 1930s, was recently demolished, as the zoo believed it was no longer habitable for any of its animals.

In its place, a new tropics complex is being built. Right now, it is expected to contain animals from Madagascar and Southeast Asia.

While it is easy to see the changes in infrastructure, the Seneca Park Zoo also understands the importance of nurturing people through academia, as Coon and Hamilton both teach BIOL-385. This course, the Seneca Park Zoo Internship, allows students to learn more about the zoo — both in class and hands-on. Students participate in a series of lectures along with holding multiple positions at the zoo throughout the semester.

“[Students] emerge with a better understanding of what happens in a zoo and how we keep animals from going instinct,” Coon said.

The Seneca Park Zoo understands that success comes with an understanding of the past, present and future. As an organization, their focus is to care for the animals of not just today but also tomorrow.