Originally Posted Online: April 21, 2013, 11:57 pm
Last Updated: April 22, 2013, 12:55 am

Niabi Zoo parties for the planet

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Alli Kinkaid 5 of Monmouth, IL touches the skin of a 5 foot-long Milk Snake held by zoo volunteer Mary Lou Ries at the annual Niabi Zoo Earth Day Celebration Sunday April 21, 2013.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Niabi Zoo volunteer Bob Ries shows Leonard, a three-toed box turtle, to Brooke Kammerer, of Blue Grass, and her sons, Kolton, 4, and Kaleb, 3, during the annual Niabi Zoo Earth Day Celebration on Sunday.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck

COAL VALLEY -- Anybody who wants to help save the world could get some tips on Sunday during Niabi Zoo's annual "Party for the Planet" to celebrate Earth Day.

"We always talk about the importance of the habitat of the rain forests, in Africa, but our message this year is -- your backyard is important, too," said Sharon Freedman, assistant zoo director. Sunday's theme was "Habitats at Home."

Niabi gave visitors 150 conifer tree saplings, and 250 orange, limited-edition Niabi 50th Anniversary reusable bags. The bags can be used in place of disposable plastic bags which frequently end up in landfills.

One popular activity on Sunday was a board with photos of items that may be thrown away and notes of how long it would take certain things to decompose or disintegrate in landfill. Visitors were asked to match a disintegration time with one of the items.

For example, newspapers take two weeks to decompose; leather shoes, 25 years; plastic bags, 400 years; plastic bottles 500 years; and Styrofoam, "maybe never," according to the display.

"We want people to learn how to take care of the planet," Niabi volunteer Loretta Loveridge said.

Zoo guests learned what they can do in their own backyards to create and sustain habitats for wildlife, including picking up packets of milkweed seeds to plant. Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed plants, and caterpillars eat milkweed as they grow and eventually transform into monarchs.

The numbers of these butterflies "are dwindling, so we're encouraging people to plant," Ms. Freedman said.

Visitors learned about the annual migration of monarch butterflies, and how millions of them travel thousands of miles. Researchers (including at Niabi) have been tagging and tracking these butterflies to learn more about their journey.

Volunteer Ken Basken showed the tags used for butterflies, and told how they migrate to and from Mexico, where the milkweed habitat is dwindling."We need to rebuild the habitat they need to survive," he said.

Zoo volunteer Mary Lou Ries and her husband, Bob, have volunteered at Niabi for 10 years. "There's something to learn every day. There's something new. All the processes that go on in a zoo, just reaffirms your faith in God," she said.

She said she likes the Earth Day event for its educational purpose. "The more people we can get educated in conservation and caring for our planet, the better off we'll be. That's an integral part of the zoo," Ms. Ries said. "Everything ties together. You just can't take one phase. It all has to work together."

Among the ways people can make their backyard more wildlife-friendly are to provide nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts in feeders; clean water sources such as bird baths, installed ponds or rain gardens and wildlife cover such as native vegetation, shrubs or brush piles.

Ms. Loveridge showed an exhibit on trees, including the stump of a 132-year-old oak tree, which had labels on certain years for each ring, including 1963 when Niabi Zoo was started. In the corner is anew gift tree with tags for zoo visitors to take which lists items Niabi needs.

People are encouraged to donate things such as a water bowl for a bald eagle, towels, toys and tools to clean animals' hooves.

Another room featured volunteers showing playful ferrets, a box turtle and red Eclectus parrot (a female named Ruby). Niabi partners with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to boost the population of box turtles, also affected by loss of habitat.

Eggs hatch at the zoo, grown turtles have a radio transmitter put on them, and they're tracked after being released at a prairie in Thomson.

Melissa Horton, of Moline, a Niabi member, attended Sunday with her 7-year-old son, Michael, and his cousins. "I thought we'd all come out. We learned a lot about the butterflies, about planting a tree."