It was a year of records for the Akron Zoo in 2016. Now, officials are looking to top that in 2017 as new events have been planned and a new exhibit will be unveiled this summer.
Curious Creatures will take the place of the long-staing Journey to the Reef exhibit, which closed in November. Autumn Russell, director of education, said the new exhibit will open June 3.
"What we really wanted to do was kind of give an opportunity for people to see animals that they might not know about or be aware of," Russell said. "There are some really interesting and unique animals out there that either look very unique or have unique adaptations that help them survive."
The naked mole rat is an example of one of the curious creatures that will be featured in the new exhibit. Russell said the naked mole rat is not a mole or a rat, which is one of its unique characteristics. Naked mole rats also have a similar social structure to bees. There is a queen naked mole rat that does the breeding and worker mole rats that work together to accomplish tasks, Russell said.
A walking batfish will also be on display in the Curious Creatures exhibit. Russell said the walking batfish was chosen for its unique appearance. The walking batfish uses its fins to walk along the bottom of the ocean.
"It’s been fun planning it, so I’m excited to see it up and running and what people think about it ... (it's) our blank canvas in a way," Russell said.
Officials are hopeful Curious Creatures, as well as some of the other events, they are carrying over from a year ago, could lead to even bigger things in 2017.
But that won't be easy as Director of Marketing and Public Relations David Barnhardt said a record of more than 398,000 people visited the zoo in 2016.
Boo at the Zoo, a six-night Halloween event where children can visit the zoo and trick-or-treat at 12 different treat stops, was also record-breaking as just shy of 30,000 people visiting during those days. Oct. 23, which coincided with Boo at the Zoo, set the single-day record with 7,550 visitors.
The Akron Zoo has hosted the Boo at the Zoo events for more than 20 years. Previously, Boo at the Zoo opened only in the evening for children to come and trick-or-treat. This year, the Halloween event was open from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. to accommodate for larger crowds.
"In the last couple years we’ve set records for that event, so I think it is even gaining more momentum, and certainly the mild temperatures and nice weather during that event always helps," Barnhardt said.
Barnhardt attributed the increased attendance in 2016 to new baby animals on exhibit mixed with the success of events like Boo at the Zoo and Wild Lights.
"(It) certainly was a record-breaking year at the Akron Zoo," Barnhardt said. "This year, we did not open anything new, but fortunately, we did have a lot of exciting things happen at the zoo."
The previous attendance record was set in 2013 with 389,508 individuals visiting the zoo. Grizzly Ridge opened in 2013, which led to the increase in vistors that year, according to Barnhardt.
While there were no new exhibits during the 2016 season, Barnhardt said a flamingo chick on exhibit and three snow leopard cubs were a draw for many visitors. The Journey to the Reef exhibit also announced it would be closing in November 2016, which Barnhardt said attracted more visitors to see the underwater exhibit one last time.
The Akron Zoo also restarted its holiday light show, which opened Nov. 24 and continued through Dec. 30, for the first time in 16 years. Barnhardt said Holiday Lights was reintroduced as Wild Lights after members from the community said they would like to attend a lighting event.
During Wild Lights, visitors were able to roast marshmallows, drink hot chocolate and visit with Santa while viewing the animals and animal-themed lights.
"(Holiday Lights) was very popular, but we hadn’t done it for about 16 years. We’ve heard from people in the community that they would like to see it again," Barnhardt said. "This year, we decided to bring back the event and call it Wild Lights. It was very well received, so we will be doing it definitely again in 2017."
Barnhardt said the Akron Zoo is planning multiple events during 2017 to continue the increasing attendance rates. Some of these events include Wild for Wine, a new event where adults can do wine tasting, and the annual Brew at the Zoo events.