What began as the private vision of an area businessman has blossomed into a wildlife education and entertainment icon of Central Kansas.

“It has changed tremendously,” said Sandy Walker. “We’ve gone from being this small, private collection into becoming involved in multiple species survival plans and working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to become heavily involved in global conservation, all starting with my dad's love of animals.”

 

Walker is chair of the board of directors for Rolling Hills Zoo, a 65-acre zoological park and 64,000-square-foot wildlife museum, located 20 minutes west of Salina. On Saturday, RHZ is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding by rolling back admission prices to those of 1999: adults $8, seniors (65+ years old) $7, children ages 3 to 12 $5, and children 2 years old and younger free. The first 200 guests will also receive a special commemorative gift.

The day will start at 9 a.m. on the Overlook Restaurant patio with music, face painting and bounce houses. Animal Meet & Greets will follow on the patio from 9:30 to 11 a.m., and 12:30 to 2 p.m., along with hourly Keeper Encounters from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the zoo. The zoo will also have free hot dog lunches and anniversary cupcakes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Overlook Restaurant patio.

 

Dreams and passion

Sandy Walker is the daughter of Charlie Walker, a Salina businessman who purchased a tract of land west of Salina in the 1980s. During the decade, Charlie would grow “Rolling Hills Ranch” from a collection of Belgian draft horses to include more exotic animals — including llamas, two black bear cubs, and later a lioness — and open the ranch to public tours.

“What really motivated him was how he saw people respond to the animals,” Sandy said. “That lead into the decision to make it into a zoo open to the public.”

Clark Renfro, RHZ executive board member, recalls the excitement emanating from Charlie at the thought of bringing a zoo to the area.

“Him being a friend of our family, he would take me up in his helicopter and point out his vision for the zoo’s design,” Renfro said. “This was back in the late '80s — we got to see the beginnings of his vision taking shape.”

In 1995, the exotic animal portion of the ranch separated from Rolling Hills Ranch. Kathy Tolbert, RHZ, assistant director, remembers the years of preparation before the zoo opened.

“I was initially hired as the office manager,” Tolbert said. “We were a small team then, so I didn't take me very long to finish the office work needed to be done. Then I would go out with the zoo director at the time, Bob Brown, we would lay out exhibits, clean bathrooms, paint enclosures — I just kind of jumped in and helped wherever I could. My experience with animals and the construction side of things definitely grew as the zoo grew.”

After years of construction, the zoo opened to the public in the fall of 1999, with the grand opening being attended by 255 people. The zoo has since played host to over 1.5 million visitors, and expanded to include a wildlife museum.

“We had the museum in 2005, and that added a whole different level to Rolling Hills Zoo,” Tolbert said. “We also have a very strong educational program where kids can come out and learn about animals, and learn about conservation through our camps and various education programs.  

“Conservation and education go hand-in-hand.”

 

Mission and purpose

While evolving to play a role in worldwide animal species survival and conservation, RHZ has stayed to true to the original vision of the park, said Robert Jenkins, zoo executive director.

“One of the reasons why we get such positive results from visitors is that, unlike many, many modern zoos, which I become theme parks in the way they present themselves, this zoo has retained the original concept of a zoological garden," he said.  “You have wonderful planted areas, a sylvan atmosphere, that is interspersed with animal exhibits.

"You're not pressed, you're not rushed — you have a relaxing, enjoyable environment in which to walk around and observe the animals.”

Sandy cites the organization’s choice to join the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, as “one of the best decisions we’ve made.” AZA is an international accreditation entity that facilitates both “Species Survival Plans” and “Population Management Plans,” which serve to sustainably manage genetically diverse captive populations of various animal species, according to the organization.

“It just opened up a whole new world to us,” Sandy said.

AZA’s rigorous accreditation also sets Rolling Hills Zoo apart from less ethical zoos operations, Renfro said.

“A lot of times roadside zoos that aren't a AZA gives zoos a bad name,” Renfro said. “That's not what zoos are about — they are not about putting animals behind bars or in unhealthy situations. They are about education and conservation, and having the welfare of the animals at the very top of their priority list.”

For Renfro, the zoo’s effect on the community is encapsulated by a quote by Baba Dioum above the facility’s exit, reading “In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

“Part of our effort at the zoo is to help educate people about what is happening and why it is important for people to take action,” Renfro said. “It's fun to go out there and spend the day at the zoo or outside, but ultimately it's about us being stewards of this planet.”