Via Delco Times

WILMINGTON, Del. >> As if on cue, Chavin the Andean condor spread his wings at least 8 feet wide to welcome visitors to the Brandywine Zoo on a recent afternoon.

Chelsea the Blue and Yellow Macaw, who uses her long bill like a third foot, announced her presence so loudly that a toddler scurried over to his mama and asked, “Mommy, what was THAT?”

Meanwhile, Zhanna the Amur tiger continuously strutted her striped stuff in a serpentine pattern, creating many photo opportunities for her adoring fans.

“Isn’t she a diva?” said zoo director Gene Peacock.

Quick to note that his last name is truly his given one, Peacock has been director of the small zoo overlooking the Brandywine River for nearly three years.

“All zoos are family-friendly but ours is small enough that you can bring a stroller and have a nice casual stroll in this beautiful setting on the banks of the Brandywine,” said Peacock. “With the setting and size it is easy to do and a family of four can get in for the price of one at another zoo.”

Affordability is what inspired Akeara Johnson of Philadelphia to bring her 2-year-old son, Kyhan Govan, to the zoo recently with her mother, Diane Cossie and her aunt, Sheila Cossie.

“When you have a young child, you’re looking for affordable things to do,” said Diane Cossie.

Johnson noted that not only is Brandywine Zoo less expensive than other zoos, it is only a short drive from Philadelphia and it has several programs for toddlers and young children.

“This is my first time coming but I am coming back for Halloween,” said Johnson, referring to the “Boo at the Zoo” program that was staged at the end of October.

Jim and Amelia Black are members of the Brandywine Zoo so they have visited it as much as 50 times a year with their 2 and a half year old son, Ethan, and now, they are also bringing their 8-month-old daughter, Miriam.

“We’re right in the neighborhood so we come here a lot,” said Jim Black.

Their neighbor Christina Chiappine also likes to visit Brandywine Zoo regularly with her 4-year-old daughter, Sunny.

“We come here, have a picnic and feed the geese. It’s nice because it’s enclosed and we have toddlers,” she noted.

Located on more than 12 acres in Brandywine Park, the 110-year-old zoo is managed by the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation with the support of the Delaware Zoological Society. It is home to more than 100 animals from the tropical and temperate areas of North and South America, Asia and Africa. It also offers summer camps, animal encounters and school programs as well as a traveling zoo that the education staff takes to festivals and schools all over the state of Delaware and to Delaware and Chester counties in Pennsylvania.

“We have from 95,000 to 100,000 visitors a year,” noted the zoo director.

In addition to Peacock, the staff includes a curator, 10 zookeepers and five educators. Docents, interns and volunteers also help keep the intimate menagerie available to the public.

“They can see a tiger up close, pet the goats and see other animals like Tamarins, Red Pandas, Bald Eagles and Andean Condors,” said Peacock.

One of the more unusual creatures is Candy, who just arrived at the Brandywine Zoo this year. She is a Capybara, which, at an average weight of 100 pounds, is the world’s largest rodent. She resembles a cross between a hippopotamus and a Guinea pig and is native to the Amazon River Basin. On a recent autumn afternoon, visitors could watch her eating out of two zookeepers’ hands.

The neighbors can set their clocks by Zhanna’s feeding time.

“After 4 or 4:30 she is roaring in her den. They can hear it up and down the valley in the park,” said Peacock.

Children under 3 are admitted to the Brandywine Zoo for free as are older children and adults who are zoo members. Admission otherwise varies from $3 to $7 depending on age and time of year. From December through February admission is free due to limited visibility of some of the animals. The zoo is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. year ‘round, every day but Christmas; however it is closed Mondays and Tuesdays from November to the end of next February for the building of a boardwalk at Eagle Ridge near the habitats of the American Bald Eagles and the otters.

“It will improve the viewing area and bring it up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards with ramps and decking for strollers and wheelchairs,” said the zoo director.

Peacock succeeded Nancy Falasco who served the zoo for nearly 37 years, first as curator then as director. She is credited with fostering many improvements and innovations including a new master plan, physical renovations, conservation education programs and research and field studies of such endangered species as Shavin and Zhanna. Falasco also helped elevate zoo standards to meet the strict requirements of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The Brandywine Zoo has maintained that accreditation since 1981.

The improvements continue. Peacock said plans are in the works to develop an additional 12 to 14 acres on the hillside by the zoo.

“We hope to develop it and grow the zoo,” said Peacock.

The Brandywine Zoo is located on land that once was the site of a public amphitheater where such famous orators as Daniel Webster extemporized. Some believe General George Washington mustered his troops in a field near the zoo during the Revolutionary War. In 1904 Dr. James H. Morgan proposed the idea of a zoo in Brandywine Park that is one of three Wilmington parks designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead in 1886. Morgan donated animals and the Wilmington Board of Park Commissioners agreed to pay for shelters and fences for what in 1905 would be known as the Wilmington Zoo.

It was first managed by the Washington Heights Civic Association that soon became the Wilmington Free Zoological Association. In 1952 the Wilmington Lions Club did major fundraising for a children’s zoo that remained intact even when the main zoo fell into disrepair and closed in 1963. New Castle County officials took over in 1971 and hired Hans Rosenberg who served as zoo supervisor until 1979 when Tom Skeldon assumed the post and developed the Delaware Zoological Society .

Visitors can access the zoo via the cobblestone Monkey Hill Road where the Monkey House stood until a tree fell on it in 2013. It was demolished last spring but a miniature version of it now stands as a bird house near the entrance of the zoo. Golden Lion Tarmarin monkeys now frolic in a cage inside the main zoo.

As visitors travel the promenade they can see signs about each animal with such “Fast Facts” as why a not-really-bald eagle is saddled with that moniker, or that a Teddy Bear-faced Red Panda is really more like a raccoon. Zookeepers are on-hand to offer insight on such matters as why an animal may seem to be hiding.

“Our sloth is inside because we had a bit of bad weather,” said one zookeeper recently.

Another explained that the otters were so determined to take a nap that afternoon, they broke into their den, despite the door having been closed by their human caretakers.

“What can you do?,” she said with a smile.

IF YOU GO: Brandywine Zoo, 1001 N. Park Drive, Brandywine Park, Wilmington, DE 19802; Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily year ‘round except for Christmas. It will be closed Mondays & Tuesdays now through February 2016 for renovations. Admission ranges from free to $7. For more information call 302-571-7747, e-mail events@brandywinezoo.org or access brandywinezoo.org.

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