MICHIGAN CITY – One of the most prominent attractions in Michigan City appears to be getting more popular all the time.

The Washington Park Zoo set a record for attendance during its 2019 season with 103,123 visitors, up from the previous high of 100,122 in 2017, according to zoo director Jamie Huss. And while many of the visitors came from Michigan City, about 88 percent were from out of town and their impact on the local economy is estimated at over $7.7 million.

“Welcoming 100,000 people through our gates was once again our goal this year, and we thank the community and visitors for their continued support,” Huss said. “With the restoration and renovations to the historical castle, along with all of the smaller improvements, new animals and the focus to enhance the landscape, it was an eventful season here...

"There's always something new to see at the zoo," she said. "Currently, renovation plans are in the works to hopefully expand the African Lion and Bengal Tiger habitats in 2020, as well as other plans that will allow us to continue to evolve in a way that makes the community proud."

This year marked the zoo’s 91st season and brought many highlights, according to Huss, including earning re-accreditation by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA).

"To be accredited, the zoo underwent a thorough review to ensure it has and will continue to meet the ever-rising standards in categories, which include animal care and welfare, veterinary programs, conservation, education, and safety," Huss said. "The ZAA requires zoos and aquariums to successfully complete this rigorous accreditation process every five years in order to be members ... The Washington Park Zoo has been continuously accredited by the ZAA since 2004."

The zoo closed out 2014 by unveiling new branding which focused on making sure each animal has the best possible care and every guest has a memorable experience, Huss said. "Each year the zoo has continued to complete its project goals and expand it’s ongoing 5-year strategic plan, which includes upgrading exhibits, buildings, and grounds."

Zoo officials believe the increased attendance in 2019 can be attributed to community awareness of the zoo, and plans for future growth and enhancement.

"The zoo relies on that community support not only with visitors, but also monetary donations, volunteer time and gifted items from its wish list," Huss said. "The support allows the zoo to continue to make improvements to its many programs, including conservation, education and animal care."

Education is an integral part of the zoo and "helps to spread our message of wildlife conservation by engaging guests in fun, interactive programs that help foster stewards of wildlife," Huss said. Programs include special events, summer camps, outreach programs, in-house programs, tours, scout programs, and more.

The Washington Park Zoo is home to over 200 animals, many of which are threatened in the wild, she said.

"We are dedicated to being a sanctuary for exotic animals in need of a safe home. Some of the zoo’s residents have been misplaced pets that proved to be too wild or were confiscated as being illegally owned. Some have suffered injuries that would make life in the wild impossible and others were removed from their natural habitat by the DNR ...

"In all cases the residents are given the best environments that our staff can provide for their health and mental enrichment needs. Our staff is dedicated to the health and welfare of the animals in our care and their relatives in the wild."

Many of the animals are rescues, Huss said, and breeding programs are specialized for animals that are vital to the international Zoo Species Survival Plan (SSP) for captive populations. The zoo welcomed some noteworthy births in 2019, including twin golden-handed tamarins, dart frogs, and first-time birth milestones with the addition of two barn owls and a three-banded armadillo.

The zoo is closed for the season and will reopen in April. For updates, visit the Facebook page and website (washingtonparkzoo.com).

Reservations can be made for 2020 field trips and the outreach program known as “Zoo to You,” which brings animals to schools, nursing homes, and other educational facilities, by contacting the zoo office.

"The zoo staff would like to thank the community and guests for their wonderful patronage of the ‘best little zoo in the Midwest,’ and we look forward to seeing all of you back again in April," Huss said.

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