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Namaste will celebrate his birthday next Sunday with an ice birthday cake with bone candles.
Zoo’s natural splendor lets animals roam
You won't find any elephants at Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens on the Big Island. It also doesn't have any giraffes, lions or hippopotamuses.
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens
Address: 800 Stainback Highway, off Highway 11, about four miles south of Hilo, Big Island
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Christmas and New Year's Day
Admission: Free (donations appreciated)
Call: (808) 959-9233 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.hilozoo.com
» A petting zoo featuring a Hawaiian hawk, pot-bellied pig and miniature horse is open from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays
» Watch Namaste being fed at 3:30 p.m. daily. His diet consists of 12 pounds of chicken, meat, ground bone and vitamins.
» Namaste's Kids Club offers monthly activities for ages 6 to 12. Cost per activity is $10 to $15 per child. E-mail email@example.com.
» Panaewa celebrates its 30th anniversary throughout 2008, with a special celebration planned for next summer.
Namaste's Birthday Party
Namaste turns 9 on Sept. 30, and the zoo celebrates with a birthday party on the following Saturday, Oct. 6. Planned are food booths selling hot dogs, pizza, shave ice, plate lunches and smoothies; musical entertainment, including the Hawaii County Band and Orchid Isle Youth Orchestra; keiki face-painting, games and "make-and-take crafts"; gifts for Namaste (including a whole turkey); and free cake and ice cream. Marc the Clown, Lani Moo and Terry the Tiger will be among the special guests, and there will be drawings for two gift baskets. Don't forget to sign Namaste's birthday cards and take photos by the life-size plush tiger at the entrance.
Instead, you'll get acquainted with the binturong, kinkajous, coatimundis and other creatures with spots, stripes, tails and scales that usually aren't found in a metropolitan menagerie. The only tropical rainforest zoo in the country, Panaewa harbors 80 animal species that thrive in that climatic zone.
Many of Panaewa's residents have names. There's Casper the ring-tailed lemur; Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, a pair of tegu (South American lizards); Belle and Kiko, brown capuchin monkeys; and Maikai, a blind nene (Hawaiian goose, Hawaii's state bird).
And there are the giant anteaters Spike and Penny Ant-E, the two-toed sloth Lolohi, the water buffalo Arnie and the Swainson's toucans Can-Can and Tou-tou.
But, without question, the king of this 12-acre domain is Namaste, a 500-pound white Bengal tiger who's one of about 250 such tigers in captivity today. All are descended from Mohan, a wild white tiger captured in 1951 by the maharaja of Rewa, a province in central India.
A gift from Dirk Arthur, who breeds animals for his magic show in Las Vegas, Namaste has lived at Panaewa since April 1999, when he was just 7 months old. As luck would have it, Panaewa was looking for a tiger at the same time that Arthur was looking for a good home for Namaste. His name is a Sanskrit greeting akin to aloha.
While Namaste is undoubtedly Panaewa's biggest draw, the zoo also has won acclaim for its landscaping, due in large part to the efforts of dozens of volunteers, including members of the Hawaii Island Palm Society, Hilo Orchid Society and Big Island Water Garden Club.
There are breadfruit and banyan trees, monstera and monkeypod, poinsettia and purple allamanda, hibiscus and hapuu fern. Monarch butterflies flit and peacocks strut among 100 varieties of palms and notable collections of orchids and tropical rhododendrons, including the fragrant vireya, which can be found on the Big Island from sea level to cool 4,000-foot elevations.
Amorphophallus titanum is a very rare plant native to Sumatra's equatorial rainforests. Commonly called the corpse flower, it's a member of the aroid family, which also includes anthuriums, calla lilies and philodendrons.
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All the animals get in on the fun for Namaste's birthday. Above, Enrichment Team member Alia Zelko gave some special treats to Mike the squirrel monkey at a previous celebration.
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The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is about more than just animals. A large variety of plants are used to landscape the 12-acre area, including these nun's orchids.
Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari first discovered Amorphophallus titanum in Sumatra in 1878, and it's now renowned for having the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world.
A mature bloom, which lasts only two or three days, could measure up to 12 feet tall.
True to its moniker, the corpse flower releases an unpleasant odor similar to rotting flesh during the first eight to 12 hours of its life. Caretakers have nurtured Panaewa's Amorphophallus titanum for about five years. It usually takes more than seven years for the plant to bloom, and there's no telling when the zoo's prized specimen will do so.
Panaewa's exhibits were designed to maximize and blend in with the vegetation of its location, which receives some 125 inches of rain annually. Wherever possible, animals live in natural open settings, enabling visitors to view them up close rather than from a distance behind a barrier.
All tours, events and educational programs are run by volunteers with the support of the nonprofit community-based Friends of the Zoo.
Miyako Warrington, who's working on her master's degree in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, is a member of the zoo's board and head of its youth program committee. She's also responsible for the care of a brown lemur named Andy, whose legs and tail are paralyzed.
"Animals are like mirrors in that they reflect back the love that you give," Warrington said. "I help keep Andy clean, healthy, exercised and socialized. In return, he teaches me over and over again that there are truly only a few things that matter in life."
There are days Warrington arrives at the zoo tired and frustrated with everyday challenges. "But my stress melts away as I hold Andy in my arms and he wraps his arm around my neck," she said. "He reminds me that all we really need to survive is water, food, clean air, shelter to protect us from the elements -- and plenty of love."
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Zoo visitors will get free cake and ice cream and keiki can participate in games.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.