ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – After the recent deaths of the Abilene Zoo’s Macho the black rhinoceros and Walter the king cobra, community members are raising concerns about the number of deaths. However, with many more births than deaths in the last two years, the Abilene Zoo wants to be transparent and shed a new light on its circle of life.

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Alex Gonzalez, Supervisor of animal care, walks the same hallways every day. Just underneath the giraffe terrace at the Abilene Zoo, lies the indoor facilities for the Colobus monkeys, blue duiker, steenbok and grey crowned cranes.

First, he puts on his bright orange rubber gloves and a surgical mask, reaching for freshly cut bananas and whole peanuts to give as enrichment to the primates he serves on a daily basis.

It’s been 27 years since Gonzalez got into the zoological field, but his love and passion for animals started way before the college level. In fact, it started when he was 3-years-old and still living in the Caribbean.

He recalled a small zoo in his hometown and was always drawn to the primate area, where he spent his Saturdays and Sundays as a young boy watching them run and play in awe.

It was his favorite spot, however, what he remembers most is the young zookeeper manning the area.

“She would always take time to talk to me and teach me something new,” Gonzalez said. “That keeper planted a seed in me and now, 40 something years later, look what I’m doing.” 

Some people have a few distinct memories at the zoo, whether that’s watching the syrup of a melting snow cone drip down their sibling’s arm, or watching the ears of a hippopotamus flap in circles as they emerged from the murky water.

For me, it was my first experience having a hands-on encounter with a giraffe. Having the nearly 18-foot-tall gentle giant lower its head down, a head as large as my body, looking me right in the eye. A unique experience for a young child, but it stuck with me throughout my life and African wildlife is still a passion of mine today.

It’s core memories like those that are shedding a different light on the Abilene Zoo’s recent losses of 17-year-old Macho, the black rhino, and nearly 30-year-old Walter, the king cobra.

Abilene Zoo:

They were staples at the Abilene Zoo for a longtime, as long, if not longer, than many of the young visitors coming through their gates today. However, they created memories, just like those giraffes did for me.

That’s why Jesse Pottebaum, Zoo Director, was very forthcoming at the most recent Parks and Recreation meeting about being transparent when it comes to the births and even deaths of their animals.

“It’s very important for the community to understand that these animals are born here, and unfortunately pass away here, this is their forever home,” Pottebaum explained.

After seeing the tremendous turnout at Macho’s memorial service, even on a cold, windy and rainy Abilene day, it further proved his point these animals mean a lot more to the community than one might think.

“A lot of these animals don’t age like human years, lifespans into the 70’s and 80’s, they have lifespans that are maybe 10-20 years,” Pottebaum said. “So, you may see some pass away, but we’ve also had many births as well.” 

But even with the losses of Macho and Walter, those memories they made for guests will never die. Pottebaum emphasized that even with death, the Abilene Zoo is seeing a record number of births.

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From five giraffe calves born, 14 capybara, over 50 amphibians, snakes and waterfowl and several steenbok born within the last two years, new life is being breathed into the Abilene Zoo with these youngsters.

Gonzalez said it amazed him the amount of support given at Macho’s memorial, but these new animals can do the same for the next wave of visitors and potential zoologists coming through the turnstile at the entrance.

“All it takes is for one child to come here, remember an experience and when they go home say ‘I loved fill in the blank,'” Gonzalez expressed. “It could be a primate or a big cat, but now we’re planting a seed that potentially they can do something towards a species in the wild because they remember that interaction.”

This not only has an immediate impact on the animal population at the zoo and reintroduction efforts currently, but could also help bring those populations back to life in the future because of newly made memories and a better understanding of the Abilene Zoo’s conservation efforts and the circle of life.