Feb 20
Why Is the Zoo More Than Just a Zoo? 

By Nina Evans

​There is no question that the White River Gardens, which opened in the spring of 1999, is a beautiful botanical garden. When you visit, you'll see hundreds of plants of all shapes, sizes and colors packed into more than 3 acres containing 25 different garden areas. It should come as no surprise that White River Gardens is officially certified as a botanical garden by a national organization, in our case the American Alliance of Museums.​​

​What might be news ​to you is that the Zoo was accredited by AAM as a botanical garden in 1996 — three years before the Gardens existed! What's that all about?

AAM began in 1906 to bring museums together, "helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community."

As time went by, it expanded its membership and accreditation programs to also include zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens. And the Indianapolis Zoo became the first to be recognized as all three!

When the Zoo moved in 1988 to our current spot in White River State Park, it grew to five times the size of its old location in George Washington Park on East 30th Street! A landscape plan was created for the large amount of non-exhibit space, then the Horticulture Department of the new Zoo took over. Plants as well as animals became part of the Zoo's collections, with both having their own detailed record-keeping system. ​

In addition to receiving accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the new Zoo also sought accreditation from AAM, which required demonstrating excellence in 38 characteristics under seven categories, such as mission and planning, collections stewardship, and education and interpretation. After submitting a huge questionnaire, the Zoo hosted the AAM's visiting committee for an on-site review. Finally, the accreditation commission goes over all the collected information and makes its decision. After going through the extensive process in 1996, the Zoo's certification as a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden was achieved. It is renewed every 10 years to demonstrate our continuing commitment to excellence.

So when the White River Gardens opened in 1999, it was already a part of an accredited botanical garden. The plant collection increased and became even more diverse, managed by an expanded Horticulture Department. You have probably spotted Horticulture staff working hard in the landscape throughout the Zoo and Gardens. We are dedicated to providing you and our animals the best experience possible. Be sure to ask us about our plants on your next visit!

Jan 24
Meet the Caretakers of our Critters: Trent Rowlett

​Zoo trainer enjoys highlighting the ways guests can help dolphins

When guests attend a dolphin presentation at the Indianapolis Zoo, they are quickly introduced to one of the dolphins and learn that animal's individual story.

For Trainer Trent Rowlett, that's the highlight of each presentation because it offers visitors an opportunity to connect individually with these magnificent marine mammals then inspires those visitors to help save dolphins in the wild.

"I don't want guests to leave the Zoo saying, 'I saw a dolphin today,' I want them to leave and say, 'I saw China today and this is her story,'" said Rowlett. "Each animal has a story. (In the presentation), you get to know the animals on an individual basis and you learn why we should save them in the wild."

Rowlett first started working at the Zoo 13 years ago as a Zoo Teen, an opportunity that inspired him at a young age to pursue a career as a dolphin trainer. After joining the animal care staff four years ago, he is now a marine mammal and carnivore trainer. In addition to working with dolphins, he also works with the walrus, tigers and many other species in the Zoo's Oceans and Forests areas, forming a special bond with individual animals in each of those areas.

Of all the different roles he's had over the years, he said his favorite has been helping guests connect with conservation to better understand how their lives can impact wild dolphins. 

"The new dolphin presentation speaks to the Zoo's mission," Rowlett said. "To me, it says that I have something to give to the environment – that everyone can make an impact, even in a land-locked state."

The all-new presentation highlights the Zoo's partnership with The Nature Conservancy to help dolphins in the wild. With the help of the Zoo's trainers and dolphins, as well as stunning video filmed on location in the Gulf of Mexico, patrons learn the story of wild dolphins and how their lives are connected through Indiana's waterways.

Rowlett, who grew up in Central Indiana, said many Zoo visitors discover their connection to the Gulf for the first time when they see the presentation.

"I think the majority of people who come to the Zoo are surprised that the things they do every day have an impact locally and globally," he said. "Your daily routine has an impact on animal conservation. Even Indiana farmers are now thinking about how they impact dolphins in the wild."

Jan 17
The Farm in the Zoo’s Backyard

​By Nina Evans

Do you know that the White River Gardens has an agrarian theme? Once you start to look, you'll discover references to farm life both inside and out. Look at the shapes of the building: the Bud Schaefer Rotunda looks like a grain silo; the Hulman Riverhouse mimics a riverfront warehouse; the Hilbert Conservatory is shaped like a huge Indiana barn. And the wonderful 360-degree mural in the Rotunda, called Midwest Panorama, strikingly depicts Indiana's four seasons of farm life.

Venture outside into the DeHaan Tiergarten​ on a nice winter day to find other nods to Indiana's agricultural heritage. On the main walkway through the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden, you'll find a big chunk of Bedford limestone carved like an old millstone once used to grind wheat or corn into flour. You'll see the Gardens' whimsical version of wind mills in the tall Vining Mills wood and metal sculptures beside the water gardens steps, and the skeleton of a grain silo masquerading as a gazebo on one end. The walls of the Ornamental Allee harbor the outline of a split rail fence, if you can get your eyes to see the pattern of the inset bricks in the walls rather than at those that stick out – an optical illusion, for sure!

The White River Gardens "farm" doesn't stand alone, however. Surrounding the lush fields of edible and ornamental plants (in the summer, that is) are the wilder lands: the stylized prairie of the Virginia Fairbanks Sun Gardens and the woodland retreat of the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden.

​​When you stroll the winding walkway of the Sun Garden, you'll still notice signs of a long-gone farm in the curved stone foundations of old silos all along your path, as well as a tall stone cistern just before you emerge at the edge of the little farm pond. The Shade Garden is like many wooded areas left untilled by farmers, with trails cutting through narrow mounds that were once fallen trees. During heavy storms, water collects in two round sinkholes, formed ages ago as rain dissolved the limestone that is the bedrock of southern Indiana farms.

What else is there? Now that you are in on this little known Gardens theme, perhaps you'll spot more for yourself! Keep an eye out for things referencing the farm and the surrounding Indiana landscape. And wintertime, when the plants are hibernating, is the perfect time to look for those little agrarian details in the White River Gardens.​

Dec 13
A New Home for Mom and Baby

​Just before the fall season moved in, the Zoo's orangutan population grew by two. Kim, a 38-year-old orangutan and her baby Max moved to the Indianapolis Zoo from the Jackson Zoo in Mississippi. At 9-months-old, Max was showing signs of slow development and Indianapolis was selected to provide a new home for mom and baby. The decision was based on the strength of the Zoo's state-of-the-art facilities, expert veterinary staff, skilled ape caretakers, and management philosophy. 

Since arriving, Kim and Max have lived in the former orangutan facility with indoor and outdoor access. Kim was overweight when she arrived and has steadily lost weight over the last 10 weeks and her mobility has increased drastically. The vet staff has also worked diligently to care for Max and he is responding well with a marked increase in his appetite, activity and coordination. Everyone is very pleased with his progress.

Soon, the two will move into the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. You probably won't see them right away. What will happen first are some behind-the-scenes introductions to other orangutans like Knobi, who is known for her ability to jump in as an Auntie and help care for a baby, like 8-month-old orangutan Mila. As Kim is comfortable, she'll make her way out into the Atrium with baby.

Orangutan moms like Kim will model behavior for their babies to help them learn all the skills they need to know. Young orangutans in the wild spend lots of time with their mothers to learn how to survive in the forest. Weaning usually takes seven to nine years, which makes for the longest inter-birth interval of any mammal!

Dec 05
Meet the Caretakers of Our Critters: Lisa Oland

​After more than 20 years of working with Pacific walrus at the Indianapolis Zoo, Lisa Oland has ​​​​​​​​​​developed a plus-sized loved for the largest of all pinnipeds. And in her supporting role with the Species Survival Plan, which helps sustain a healthy and diverse animal population within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, she has formed a special connection with this species that extends to every walrus in human care in North America.   

Tell me more about your involvement with the Species Survival Plan for Pacific walrus.

Currently, I am the AZA walrus studbook keeper for North America. I also serve as the primary contact and AZA expert for Pacific walrus. As the studbook keeper, I maintain a true record of the history of the walrus population in human care that is used for managing the Species Survival Plan. The studbook information is important to maintain genetic diversity within the population of walrus in human care. At the same time the studbook keeper also works with facilities to make sure there are animals for facilities that need them and to make sure there are homes for offspring that are born. It is all a delicate balance to make sure you are making not only the best decisions for the present circumstances, but also for the future.

What is it about this species that inspires you to go above and beyond?

I love walrus! They are intelligent and charismatic, not what people expect. At this time, there are only 15 walrus in zoos and aquariums in the U.S. There is still much we don't know about walrus due to their remote and harsh environment. However, through training and research, the Indianapolis Zoo has been able to contribute to what is known about walrus in general, which in turn helps in the management of wild walrus. As a zookeeper and trainer, that is very exciting and rewarding. I believe it is important to have a purpose and make a difference, and we are doing that every day with our two walrus, Aurora and Pakak.

What can a Zoo member do to get involved in walrus conservation?

The biggest threat to walrus in the wild is climate change. There are many things you can do as an individual to help with walrus conservation. At home you can adjust your thermostat to reduce energy consumption. Just raising your set point two degrees in the summer and lowering the set point two degrees in the winter can make a huge difference. ​

Dec 01
The Dark Side of Earthworms

By Nina Evans, Horticulturist

Come spring most of us gardeners will be getting outside, anxious to work the soil. As we dig, we will be happy to see the ever-present earthworm. These soil-dwelling creatures are so good for our soil, aerating and fertilizing the earth as they tunnel along. Perhaps not all of us realize, however, that these wriggly contributors to good garden soil are not native to the United States and are actually a cause of great concern in some settings. How can this be?

Believe it or not, there are no native earthworms in most of Indiana (or in the Midwest, for that matter)! All such animals disappeared from everywhere but the southernmost part of our state during the last ice age when glaciers basically bulldozed the earth. Any you might find here are mostly from Europe or Asia, like the well-known night crawler (Lumbricus rubellus). Many came to the United States from foreign lands in ships using stone and soil as ballast. Those worm-harboring materials were then dumped here when they were no longer needed. Explorers, immigrants and members of the plant nursery trade have brought massive numbers of plants over time into the U.S., harboring worms or their eggs. And non-native worms like night crawlers used as fishing bait get released around lakes and ponds everywhere.

Earthworms can be wonderful for the soil of your vegetable and ornamental gardens and agricultural fields. The problems they create occur when the worms' numbers become too great. Maybe you've heard stories about people not being able to dig without coming across bunches of earthworms in every shovelful, or of worms leaving behind piles of castings that can actually be the home to more worms! This can lead to lumpy lawns and messy patios, at best, and an out-of-control population of worms can actually take up so much space that they reduce the amount of soil your plants are growing in, causing the plants' health to decline.

It is in woods and forests where earthworms cause the greatest harm. They greatly decrease the amount of decomposing plant material on the ground and change the soil fertility and structure. This makes the soil drier, reduces the ability of native trees species seeds to germinate, invites the growth of invasive species and reduces the overall diversity of plants present. And plant diversity is very important to the long term survival of our woodlands and the animals that live there.

So now you know- earthworms aren't the native, totally beneficial creatures they have been thought to be for many years. Love them in your garden, but not in your woods!

Nov 17
Exploring Fantastic Creatures From the Wizarding World to the Indianapolis Zoo

​Mythical creatures have been a part of stories for centuries, and most of the beasts in common folklore originate from animals we know and love in real life. Popular book series like Harry Potter have made these fantastical beings more popular today, so many avid fans may be familiar with the fictional critters that have inspired stories for ages.

Before you hit the movies or the books, discover some real-life animals that inspired the stories.


One of the most popular mythical creatures, unicorns are generally described as a white horse-​like animal with a single, spiraling horn growing from its forehead. But did you know that one of the origins of the unicorn is credited by some to an early ancestor of the rhinoceros? Even famed explorer Marco Polo believed he had found a unicorn when he first encountered a rhino during his travels in Java. Here at the Zoo, our white rhinos Spike, Gloria and Mambo are distant cousins to the animals that inspired the unicorn myth, but to us, they're just as fascinating and majestic.


They are described as the terrifying "King of serpents" that could stretch upright and kill a human with just eye contact. Many think that some species of cobra provided the inspiration for this fictional monster, as some of these snakes pick up their head, almost like standing upright. The red spitting cobra in our Deserts Dome may be venomous, but don't worry — they can't harm you with just a look. In the Harry Potter tales, the basilisk's size and power are also key characteristics. Among the many large snake species, Burmese pythons can grow to more than 200 pounds and 20 feet. Here at the Zoo, Iris and Lily may look imposing, but when you meet them during our keeper chats, you'll realize their demeanor is nothing like the fictitious creatures.


This soaring, flame-colored creature is said said to burst into a fiery ball when it dies before rising from the ashes to be reborn. Some historians seem to think that a type of heron was the inspiration for this fictional being, with long legs and bright red coloration. And though we have many bright birds in our aviaries, perhaps the closest to that mythological flighted friend is Ruby, our scarlet macaw. ​


Many fantasy creatures are a compilation of multiple real animals. With the the head, wings and sometimes also the talons of an eagle on the body of a lion, griffins are thought to be the mythical king of all creatures. Here at the Zoo, if you spend time watching our African lion pride — especially lioness Zuri — and also our bald eagle, Tempest, it's easy to see where griffins derive their majesty and ferocity. ​

Nov 15
The Basics of Penguin Breeding Behavior

​The official start of winter is just a few weeks away in Central Indiana, but a very different season is about to begin inside our Oceans​ area.

The three species of penguins here at the Zoo — rockhopper, Gentoo and king — are all native​​ ​to the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed from Indiana’s. We maintain those​​​​ seasons within our exhibit to support the penguins’ natural breeding cycles.

So as the spring gives way to summer inside our Oceans exhibit, the annual breeding season is in full swing, making this the perfect time for penguin lovers to see some unique behaviors.

Unlike many birds that build nests using soft materials, like leaves and twigs, our penguins prefer pebbles. Around the first of October, Zookeepers began scattering extra rocks throughout the exhibit — including in the pools — encouraging the penguins to scour their space selecting stones to build the best nest.

Rocky piles have taken form all around the exhibit, some out in the open and others inside caves. Building a quality nest full of prized pebbles can help a penguin win a mate. So even the nests are in place, penguins have to keep a watchful eye out for sneaky competitors trying to raid their rocks.

Penguin pairs typically stay the same from year to year, which is rare in the animal kingdom. And although it looks at times like one of the partners might be lying down on the job, the males and females play equal roles in protecting their nests. While one bird keeps the egg warm, the other finds food or stands guard nearby.

Occasionally you might see a small quarrel between some of our birds. Though it can look a little tense, this kind of behavior is natural for penguins as they protect their nests from one another — and sometimes even keepers — just as they would from competitors or predators in the wild. In fact, when our penguins show these protective behaviors, it’s a positive sign that reinforces the level of care and protection they might offer future offspring.

By early January, breeding season will be over. So make some time soon to come see these fascinating behaviors in person. Plus, you can watch our Penguin Cam all year long! 

Nov 07
Forcing Bulbs for Off-Season Bloom

​Perhaps you​ have some spring-flowering bulbs that you just haven't managed to plant yet. Or maybe you are already dreaming of the sight and fragrance of flowers that you won't be seeing outside for months. There is a way you can still make use of those crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus (daffodils) and have blooms inside this winter and early spring through the forcing of bulbs.

"Forcing" means compelling plants to bloom early or indoors by mimicking natural conditions. The process involves chilling the kinds of bulbs that require the colder temperatures of winter before blooming, then bringing them inside as if it were spring. This is the case for all of the bulbs that we in the Midwest plant in the fall.

The basics of forcing involve placing the bulbs – pointed ends up and sides not touching each other – on top of two inches or more of potting mix in a clean pot with drainage holes. Then you cover them with more mix until just the tips show. Water well, then store in a spot that will be 35 to 50 degrees, watering a bit every couple of weeks if the soil gets dry. A refrigerator will work, but keep them away from a large amount of fruit, which emit gases that may damage the developing flower buds. A cool garage or basement is a good choice. They can go outside, but you'll want to place the pots in a cold frame or in the ground with some mulch over them so they don't get too cold.

Once you see leaves emerging, move the pots to a warmer spot (up to 65 degrees) out of direct light. Keep the plants watered so the soil is moist but not soggy. As the leaves begin to green up and get taller, you can move the plants to warmer and brighter spots. In two to three weeks you will have beautiful spring flowers to enjoy!

Generally it takes anywhere from 10 to 20 weeks of chilling, depending on the type of plant. So if you are starting now, your plants might begin blooming inside not much before the ones outdoors do. In that case, you can transplant them to your outdoor pots for great spring container plantings, if you like. Or keep them inside where you can enjoy them up close.

If you want to have plants that bloom indoors during the heart of winter, you have three options. Look for pre-cooled bulbs, which allow you to skip the chilling process and go straight to the indoor potted plant stage. Or get non-hardy amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs, which require no cold period. Finally, look ahead to next fall and begin the forcing process in September or October for colorful and often fragrant blooms in your home when the winter outside is frightful!

Oct 12
Beautiful Butterflies are Visiting White River Gardens

​We were delighted to see record numbers of monarch butterflies visiting White River Gardens ​​​​​​​​recently as they migrated south toward Mexico. For about a two-week period, hundreds of these winged beauties fluttered through our flowerbeds daily, enjoying the varieties of milkweed and other flowers we’ve planted for them.

Having so many monarchs flying around at once is a breath-taking sight! It’s also exciting news for all of us concerned with monarch butterfly conservation efforts.

It’s a central part of our mission at the Indianapolis Zoo to work and advocate for animal conservation for species all over the world as well as right here in our own backyards.

And that’s why we support Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, working together with other cities along the monarchs’ migratory route, to make Indianapolis a monarch-friendly city. Community leaders, concerned citizens and school groups around our city have started sharing seeds, planting milkweed and building habitats to save this important insect.

If you’re a simple gardener and you plant a butterfly-friendly garden, you are doing great work. If you are a school group or a third-grade class and you have a bug garden, thank you; you are helping to ensure monarchs remain a part of Indiana’s natural landscape.

Maybe the clouds of butterflies we’ve seen recently in White River Gardens are a testament that our city’s collective efforts are paying off! 

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