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Celebrating 45 years!

Mindy Ruddells – Director

Happy New Year to all! As we come into 2023, we are celebrating the Zoo’s 45th Anniversary here at Pana’ewa. The Zoo opened her doors here in September 1978. Since that time, much has changed. We’ve grown, added exhibits and new species. Leaders and staff have come and gone. More recently, the Zoo has undergone the ADA compliance renovations to widen paths and viewing areas and make accessible restrooms and picnic areas. We have almost 300 individual animals in our collection today, representing 84 different species. With the help of area plant societies and the expansion of the botanical collection, she officially became Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens in 2006.

In 1975, 6th graders participated in an essay writing contest to share why they thought the Big Island needed a zoo. Here is what contest winner, Leanne Iseri, had to say:

The Need for a Zoo on Our Big Island

So we can appreciate the grace, wonder and beauty of animals, we need a zoo on our island. In a zoo, we can see some of the animals from all over the world. When the children of Hawaii learn about animals, they can go to our zoo and observe some of the animals they are learning about. They will learn even more about the things animals eat, the sounds they make, and the animals’ behavior. Some of the animals are becoming extinct so when they are in the zoo, the zoo can protect them from predators such as hunters. In this way, the near-extinct species will have a greater chance of surviving. Having a zoo will enable all of us to see the real animal instead of seeing it second-hand through books or television.

In 1975, Leanne was ahead of her time with her thinking. Zoos have become extremely important arks for some of our wild species today. There are many species that can only be found in zoos and preserves today. At Pana’ewa, our ‘Alala exhibit is an example of that. The ‘Alala is extinct in the wild and Pana’ewa is the only zoo in the world to have them on exhibit. The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens also has the wonderful ability to exhibit rainforest species in an actual rainforest! It is the only zoo in the United States that has that ability. Our special climate and habitat provide the opportunity to exhibit these species naturally among our rainforest plants and tropical gardens. Many zoos and aquariums around the country must heavily manipulate their environment to house these tropical animals.


In April 1978 several animals started to arrive to the Pana’ewa Zoo. Among them was a lemur, seen above. Also an American crocodile and a couple of Rheas. The zoo was small but it did have a fair share of animals and birds for guests to enjoy. Hawaii Tribune- Herald Photo by Larry Kadooks 27-April-1978.

Above: The ground breaking ceremony in 1975. From left to right: Megumi Kon– Big Island Deputy Managing Director, Rev. David Ka’apu– Minister Haili Church, Leanne Iseri – Sixth grade essay contest winner, Robert Yamada – County Council Chairman and founder of Yamada and Sons, Inc, Unidentified, Russell Oda – architect, Oda/McCarty Architects, Alan Matsuda – Director, Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Milton Hakoda Director Department of Parks and Recreation, Donald Okahara – Okahara Engineering. (Thanks to all who helped identify almost all of the people in the photo.)

        Friends of the Zoo Enrichment Program

Heather Riveria

A black and white guinea pig named Yams settles in my arms. I stroke his soft fur, feed him a slice of carrot, and smile at my tiny friend. Yams is one of the four guinea pigs at the petting zoo. I’ve been a volunteer in the animal enrichment program for one year and have become attached to the animals I interact with.

I’m usually at the zoo on Wednesdays where I meet with the other volunteers at the “barn”. The volunteers, donned in their turquoise shirts, have a variety of duties like cleaning out the habitats, exercising the goats and pigs, grooming the mini horses, and interacting with the rabbits and guinea pigs. We donate our time on Wednesdays, Saturdays, or both.

Left: Heather and her friend, Yams.  Right: Barbara, Animal Enrichment Coordinator

Barbara Thomason is the coordinator of the animal enrichment program. She’s been a volunteer for fifteen years. She is also on the Friends of the Zoo board. I met her one afternoon as my husband and I wandered through the lush zoo. After speaking with her, I decided to volunteer. Barbara was patient with me as she explained the program and our responsibilities.

Some of our Duties

Jean, another volunteer, works with me on Wednesdays. She’s been donating her time for seven years. Jean says,” As part of the team, we work with the petting zoo and hoofed animals, such as guinea pigs, rabbits, mini pigs, Nigerian dwarf goats, a hair sheep, Miniature Zebu, miniature horses, and a miniature donkey. We let them out of their habitat to graze on grass. Sometimes the sheep and rabbits need special attention like a good brushing. I also work with our Hyacinth Macaw once a week, I remove him from his habitat and provide treats and take him for a walk around the zoo.  Jean is a great resource. She passed on this advice: “Volunteers should expect to get a little dirty at times. For safety, we wear enclosed shoes. We must be flexible and be willing to do different tasks.” Barbara adds, “We provide many other things including habitat improvement, toys, and special food to all the zoo animals.”

Another great resource is Dola. She told me, “I have been part of the animal enrichment program for the last six years. On Wednesdays, I clean Bling’s pool. Bling is an emu. Bling loves to play and eat the grass where her pool was sitting while I clean it out. I’ve been working with Bling since she was hatched five years ago. After cleaning out the pool and replacing it with fresh water, Bling and I go up to the front of her habitat and talk to the guests for a while. They take photos of her and ask questions about emus. Then I give her some of her favorite treats, usually peas but sometimes also grapes.”

Arla has been donating her time for nine years. She shared a little about her duties: “When we work with the miniature horses and the miniature donkey, we follow the same routine each time. First, we put on their halters and tie them up so that they stand still. Then, we groom their coats with brushes. The equines really enjoy their grooming. In addition to cleaning their coats, we also pick out the animals’ feet with a hoof pick, to keep their feet healthy. It’s important to do all this every week, so we can notice if something needs attending to. After grooming, each animal gets to graze outside of their pasture while being held on the lead rope. They can graze wherever they like.”  Arla passed on this tip, “There are some skills that you need to know in order to work with horses, like where to stand (not directly behind them), and how to read a horse’s body language. Even though they are tiny, they are still horses. So, it’s good to have someone teach you how to spend time with the equines. Then you, and them, will have a lovely, enriching time.”

Next, I spoke with Faith. She’s been a volunteer for twenty years. She works with Jellybean. Jellybean is a Zebu steer. “Jellybean received his nickname because he was born on Easter Day,” Faith told me. “Jelly enjoys walks and because he is halter trained, can leave his pen and stroll with a handler on enrichment Wednesdays’. He loves being brushed from nose to tail and will happily allow grooming until the groomer’s arms give out.”

Faith shared some additional facts about Jellybean. “Carrots, bananas and celery are some of his favorite treats along with ti leaves.” She warns to feed Jellybean the leaves and celery before offering fruit. “He turns his nose up to vegetables if he knows fruit is available.”

A Few Favorites

My favorite petting zoo animals are the guinea pigs. They are sweet and make the cutest noises. When I first started workingwith them, they weren’t used to being handled because the petting zoo was closed for a while due to the pandemic. We all took turns cuddling and handling the guinea pigs until they were used to human interaction. Now, they are doing great when meeting the children on Saturdays during petting zoo hours. I asked some of the volunteers to tell me their favorites. Jean says, “All the animals are special, but my favorite petting zoo animal is Cookie, the hair sheep. Rowdy, the macaw is my overall favorite. He has such a personality and loves to cuddle.” Dola shared, “On Tuesday and Thursday I take out Romeo the Moluccan cockatoo for his enrichment days where we walk around the zoo and talk to the guests. Sometimes he rides his skateboard around. He receives a lot of T.L.C. and his treat is usually oatmeal. He also gets a lot of wood which he likes to chew up. This is really a good thing, since it helps to keep his beak in shape. Working with these birds is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”


    Jean and Rowdy          Dola and Romeo         Arla and Mele

Khris donates her time on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On Wednesdays, she works with Faith caring for Jellybean. She told me, “Working with Jellybean is wonderful. Not unlike the family pet, he loves to be brushed, go for walks, and get treats. The program is “Animal Enrichment”, but I get more out of it than they do.” I’ve noticed that some volunteers are drawn to the chickens and other volunteers prefer the rabbits, ducks, or tortoises. We all seem to find one animal that becomes our favorite.

                              Khris & Michael with Jellybean

Some of our Enrichment Team members: Front row: Khris, Art, Kristen; Second row: Deb, Barbara, Ann, Jean, Evelyn, Arla; Third row: Kimi, Mike, Janet


Interested in Volunteering?

I discovered that volunteering at this beautiful zoo is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Some days, I like to come a little early and visit the tigers, sloths, and the alligator. Not only do I enjoy interacting with the petting zoo animals, but I get to work side by side with the other volunteers—all of us sharing a common interest, a love for animals.

If volunteering in the animal enrichment program sounds like something you would be interested in, please contact: Barbara at volunteer@hilozoo.org

More information can also be found on the zoo’s website at hilozoo.org

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