Animal magnetism at Point Defiance

The animals took center stage – literally – Thursday at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, during an afternoon practice run of sorts of the show that will be performed at the zoo’s new Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, which is set to have its grand opening May 1.

A crowd quickly gathered in and around the open-air theater as a bevy of animals – 10 species in all – were put through their paces. The animals will be part of a program that will have a strong theatrical component, as well as a conservation theme that aims to connect visitors to the natural world.

“We just knew they loved it,” said staff biologist Karen Povey, of those who have participated in the zoo’s Close Encounters education program. “We decided to expand it and provide people an opportunity to see animals in action, up close.”

Those in attendance most definitely got a chance to see several spectacular animals in action and up close. The day’s cast of characters included the following:

– Phoenix, a Harris’ hawk, which is a raptor native to the southwest deserts of the United States. Zoo officials described Phoenix as a very smart bird who has been in training for six weeks. That training has apparently paid off, as Phoenix, responding to a whistle blown by a staff biologist on stage, flew from a birdhouse perched atop a high pole just outside the theater to various points on the stage’s simulated canyon walls.

“Harris’ hawks are really good at figuring things out,” Povey said. “He’s made us look really good.”

– And speaking of looking good, a majestic bald eagle named Tahoma took center stage next. Tahoma, age unknown, has been a Point Defiance resident for six years, coming to the zoo after being injured in Idaho when he was electrocuted on a power line.

Tahoma, many times larger than the Harris’ hawk, impressed the audience with his menacing stare and powerful claws.

– Though it was a hard act to follow, Bashan, a serval, did his best. A small, yellowish tan African cat with black spots, a slender build, long legs and a small head with large, erect rounded ears, Bashan entertained the audience with his quick bursts of movement and amazing leaping ability.

– It was back to birds when Elvira, a 27-year-old king vulture, swooped low over the audience from the same birdhouse and took center stage. A strikingly colorful bird, Elvira dazzled the crowd with her yellow and red bareskin head, yellow fleshy crest on the bill and black and grey plumage with a rose-yellow tinge. Not quite as graceful on the ground as in the air, Elvira elicited a laugh from the audience as she waddled offstage.

– Next up was a creature known more for slithering – in this case Medusa, a 7-feet-long, 30-pound boa constrictor. There was some comedy relief at this point in the rehearsal, with zoo officials describing some of the prey – rodents – this particular snake likes to feed on. In the background, several rats scampered across trails along the faux canyon walls.

– A tumandua named Hoover was the next featured creature. A tumandua is an anteater that lives in the trees of the rainforest.

– Enticed by a trail of food laid on the ground, Lulu, a one-year-old African aardvark strolled across the stage.

– She was followed by an equally cute opossum named Blossom.

– The program concluded with the appearance of Quito, a 10-month old green wing macaw that circled high above the stage before eventually setting down on Povey’s arm. The mutli-colored tropical parrot could be a part of the show for a long time, as these animals are known to live for 50 years or more.

Other animals that will join the program later in the year as they acclimate and complete training include the following: a clouded leopard, a reindeer, a kookaburra (an Australian bird known for its rolling, laughing call), a hornbill (a tropical bird with a large bill), a sloth, ducks, a beaver and a kinkajou (a nocturnal relative of the raccoon that prowls the high rain forest canopies of Central and South America).

The open-air theater itself features covered seating for 350 people, with hillside seating for an additional 850 visitors. The striking theater features a high-tech fiberglass/Teflon tension fabric roof, support towers and a stage with simulated canyon walls.

The complex also has new housing and exercise yards for the animals featured in the new program.

The theater was designed by Tacoma-based BCRA Tsang Architects and built by Pease Construction of Lakewood.

The $2.94 million project is part of a major makeover under way at Point Defiance financed with proceeds from a $35 million bond issue approved by Tacoma voters in 1999.

Other projects include the exotic new Asian Forest Sanctuary exhibit opening in July, Kids’ Zone opening in spring 2005 and other visitor amenities.

Work on all projects is scheduled to be completed in 2005, in time for the zoo’s centennial celebration.

The Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater’s grand opening is set for noon, on Saturday, May 1. The program schedule is as follows:

May 1 – June 25: 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, noon and 3:30 p.m. on weekends.

June 26 – Sept. 6: noon and 3:30 p.m. daily.