Six waving tentacles (plus two imaginary ones).Seven stationary geese. Four skating puffins. Three antsy aardvarks. Two Narrows Bridges. One green and purple flame tree. Add up the numbers, and you have 25 glowing years of Zoolights. Since 1987, the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s festival of wattage has lit up Tacoma’s North End and changed how the whole town does lights.
It’s been a reason to invite the relatives from out of town and exhibit a little civic pride.
I mean, where else, in the 1980s, could you find a Flame Tree blazing with 30,000 green and purple lights?
Where else, over the years, could you cozy up to nurse sharks to get warm on a raw evening? Or walk through the aurora borealis? Or look at lit red wolves and hear real red wolves howl their response to the Vashon Ferry’s horn?
Two million people – an average of 80,000 visitors a year - know it’s nowhere but Tacoma.
The magic inspired that old sincere flattery from the start. We copied what we saw. We tried it at home. And when enough of us did it, we made our town the brightest around.
Instead of multi-colored lights on shrubs, we went with single colors, and saw how the contrasts brightened and defined the joint.
Instead of draping lights over small trees, we wrapped them. Amateur flame trees bloomed in the neighborhoods.
When LED lights first came on the market, we checked their color and brightness at Zoolights before we invested in our own.
Now 90 percent of the zoo’s 500,000 lights are LEDs. That’s meant that the Flame Tree, for instance, uses 13 amps of electricity, down from 90 amps, and one extension cord, down from nine.
In the beginning, we had 30 displays, including a cow jumping over the moon in the petting zoo. Now we have 80, including this year’s orange-to-purple octopus clinging to the aquarium roof.
Greg Smith helped build it there.
“It was a challenge,” the veteran zoo maintenance worker said. “The arms are PVC, with plastic-coated mesh.”
There had been a previous octopus, but it was a pain in the re-bar to build and took early retirement. This one’s lighter, with six tentacles lit with orange and purple lights held in place with zip-ties. The two remaining tentacles would be out of sight, so they were left to the mind’s eye.
That saved on plastic drain pipes and zip-ties.
“We should buy stock in zip-ties,” Smith said. “Really, we should.”
He spends a month each year zipping them onto trees, railings, forms and buildings, a month making sure they stay put, and a month taking them off and recycling them.
This year, the octopus will make it all worthwhile. A good breeze moves its legs. It’ll look like Jules Verne attached it to a big round diving bell.
“I think it’s going to be a big hit,” Smith said. “It will come alive for the children.”
By children, he means anyone who still breathes in a long “Oooh” when they step past the zoo gates and get an eyeful of the staff’s work.
“It’s a wonderful mixture of old favorites and new things for people to fall in love with,” said Zoo public relations coordinator Kris Sherman.
Some of the oldies have relocated. Humpty Dumpty falls into more perilous territory now that he’s father from the petting zoo and closer to giant spiders and lizards.
The eagle is still living off the land, or river, when he swoops for his salmon, but the raccoon is emulating the park’s own bandits – stealing garbage.
Traffic doesn’t jam on the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge model now that there’s a second bridge running parallel to it.
“They should have a tollbooth,” Sherman joked. She lives on the Gig Harbor side.
A Scuba Santa swims with the sharks on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The zoo has two lit camels now, to match the real ones ready to give rides for $6.
The American Association of Zoo Keepers members has Santa, and a mascot reindeer, ready for holiday photos in his sled from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Around the corner, Paul Titus Carousel’s sea horse, bear and steeds will give $1.
Around the park, the lights on figures, trees, paths and ground cover would stretch 27 miles if you ran them in a line to Seattle.
But what fun would that be?
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