In some ways, for Pine Grove Zoo Director Marnita VanHoecke, it seems like just yesterday that the Zoo Boo was first held.
But, it’s been 10 years, and every year, VanHoecke said she is awed by the community spirit.
“Watching the kids come — and the costumes. When we were kids, we were ghosts, or a bum, that was the extent of it. Once in a while we got a little wild with a scissors and our ghost became a potato,” said VanHoecke. “I think of that time and I look at the costumes of today and think the creativity is amazing.”
VanHoecke, zoo staff, and a couple hundred volunteers will begin preparations Monday to turn the Zoo into a Halloween wonderland by the Saturday, Oct. 27 event.
Thursday, between 60 and 70 volunteers will begin to carve the 475 pumpkins that will line the walkways at the zoo. Anyone can join in the fun.
Last year, about 4,000 visitors were welcomed at the Zoo Boo.
This year, because of the light fading more quickly and the air getting chillier when dark comes, the event will begin at 3 p.m. and run until 7 p.m. In previous years, it began at 4 p.m. and ran until 8 p.m.
Over the years staff and volunteers have worked to expand the Zoo Boo experience. “It’s not just about candy,” said VanHoecke. “It’s a fun-filled night for the whole family. It’s an all-entertaining event.”
Considering that people are visiting a zoo, animal enrichment, getting the zoo animals into the act and busy, has been added.
The animals get their own pumpkins to play with, or eat, and even the carnivores enjoy the pumpkins as theirs come filled with meat.
VanHoecke said staff gives the animals pumpkins a week ahead of time, to see what they like and what it takes to encourage the animals to play with the pumpkins.
The pumpkins for the tigers are sprayed with a scent they love. “The tigers go crazy over them,” she said.
“We want the animals to be active, so people remember, that they are coming to a zoo. Since it’s mostly during the daytime hours, they can enjoy the animals and the atmosphere,” she said.
Calls about the dates for the Zoo Boo start coming in around July, said VanHoecke, as people have begun to plan parties around it.
Not only does the event help raise funds for the zoo, but VanHoecke said it helps the entire town.
“People come from far away; several families come from Wisconsin every year, “ she said. “You hear it all the time, ‘We have to stop and get gas and go eat.’ They come, people stay overnight at hotels, restaurants are happy because people stop and eat. It’s great for whole community.”
Businesses are key to the success of the event and come out in full force, as between 20 and 30 booths are set up at the Zoo Boo. The businesses donate their time, talent and treats. They dress up to add to the Halloween atmosphere.
“We couldn’t do this without the businesses,” said VanHoecke. “There wouldn’t be a Zoo Boo without them.”
A contest for the best decorated booth offers cash prizes for businesses. The first place winner gets $250, second $200, third $175 and fourth $125.
VanHoecke would love to see even more businesses get involved. “It’s a great way to get your name out to a large number of people in a short amount of time,” she said.
Again this year, the Pine Grove Zoo has partnered with Perkins to create three Safari Stations. The stations are educationally-based said VanHoecke. Visitors get a stamp when they stop at each of the stations, and when completed, they get a free kids meal from Perkins.
“It’s fantastic and people love it,” said VanHoecke. “They get to see animal skulls and skins and in one station there are live animals, so they get to see a tarantula up close, or hermit crab up close.”
Donkeys will be put in the petting stable this year, so the kids can enjoy them as well.
“We’re trying to make it a unique family experience, fun for all,” she said.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the $4 charge to get into the Zoo Boo. “That’s lower than regular admission prices and you get the whole event and cool atmosphere,” she said.
“What’s really enjoyable for me is watching the people; there are a lot of volunteer hours that go into this,” said VanHoecke. “It’s very rewarding to know that the volunteers put their time in and people come and appreciate it — that’s what’s really amazing.”
For more information, call the Zoo at (320) 616-5595.