A ‘Spooktacular’ Special Event

The 27th annual SPOOKTACULAR at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is now the city of Jacksonville’s largest family-friendly Halloween celebration. For three weekends this year beginning on Oct. 17 and ending on Halloween weekend, the zoo transforms itself into choreographed carnival of costumed characters and themed attractions.

Amy Hernden is Special Events and Public Relations Supervisor at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Special events are fund-raisers for the zoo. She oversees the preparation for events such as Spooktacular by facilitating communications so all jobs are logistically coordinated.

SPOOKTACULAR tiger promotional banner at zoo entrance two-weeks prior to special event. Photo by Karen Gardner

SPOOKTACULAR tiger promotional banner at zoo entrance two-weeks prior to special event. Photo by Karen Gardner

“It takes a whole team of people to put on an event – from our facilities who build and create the sets and their creative team, to our marketing dept. who put together the advertising and purchase candy and costumes. It involves our education dept. who recruit all of our volunteers and of course our development dept. who coordinate all the sponsorships,” said Hernden.

The creative team begin enhancements to set-stages, or Lands of Enchantments, sometime in February. By October the crates holding the sets arrive at their designated areas in a one-way path around the property.

Volunteer Pirate and costumed guest, photo courtesy Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Volunteer Pirate and costumed guest, photo courtesy Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

There’s lots to see and do for kids of all ages at Lands of Enchantments. The Fairgrounds have a giant inflatable slide, bounce houses, huge alligator balloons and face-painting.

There’s pumpkin-carving at Charlie Brown’s Pumpkin Patch. Everyone can walk the ship’s plank at Pirate’s Cove. The Kingdom of Far Far Away is a “Wizard of Oz” attraction while another is based on Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Over 100 volunteers per night are recruited through the education dept. to make the event possible. Volunteers pass out candy from seven candy stations or assist guests with rides. Face-painting and pumpkin-carving need more training than a simple orientation.

Main characters require auditions and specialized training. For example, “dancing thriller zombie” is unique to the Land of the Zombies. Spooktacular has evolved into an elaborate production after 27 years, but in the end it is a still a fund-raiser.


It takes a lot of money for the zoo to take care of its animals – feeding and medical care to keep them healthy, Hernden said. Part of fund-raising efforts are obtaining sponsorships. The headlining sponsors for Spooktacular are Chase, who are also Jacksonville Zoo and Garden’s 100-year anniversary sponsor, and Pepsi, who hasve been a sponsor for Spooktacular for several years.

The last special event for Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2014 is ZOOLIGHTS, celebrating the December holidays from Dec. 12 through Jan. 1, 2015, with seasonal performances showcasing regional talent. The special event is in its third year of development for Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and the city of Jacksonville.    







How we lost the Russian ‘Reset’

Former  U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Michael McFaul, said the U.S.-Russian relationship is more contentious now under President Putin than it has been since the Cold War.

How the relationship between the two countries got that way was subject of the ambassador’s speech to an audience of over 720 people at the University of North Florida on Tuesday. Some high-ranking military brass were in attendance.

“I haven’t seen this many Generals in one place since I worked at the White House,” he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador  Michael McFaul at UNF on Tuesday. photo credit: Karen Gardner

Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul at UNF on Tuesday. photo credit: Karen Gardner

The ambassador served as Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.

“When I was in the White House we developed a policy simply called ‘Reset,'” said McFaul.

The two governments would co-operate on matters in which they could agree. An important element achieved through President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration was the development of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Its mission was to develop transportation infrastructure through Russia for supply routes in support of the war in Afghanistan. At the time 95 percent of military and humanitarian supplies went through Pakistan. The NDN reduced that amount to 50 percent over three years.

“Think about it. What if 95 percent of our supplies went through Pakistan the night before the president ordered the attack on Osama bin Laden?” asked the ambassador. “I was in the oval office that day enhancing a key portion of the distribution network.”

Two other areas of cooperation were enforcing sanctions against Iran and bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization.

“In his last meeting with President Obama (Mar. 26, 2012), President Medvedev said the three years of reset were the best level of relations between the United States and Russia in history,” said McFaul.

The reset between the U.S. and Russia began to sour with the Arab Spring of 2011.

Michael McFaul in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama as he speaks on the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Feb. 24, 2010. photo credit: Peter Graves

Michael McFaul in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama as he speaks on the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Feb. 24, 2010. photo credit: Peter Graves

Russia abstained from voting on the United Nation Security Council resolution to authorize airstrikes by coalition forces in Libya in 2011. President Medvedev decided not to use a veto to block the resolution which infuriated Prime Minister Putin.

“I was in the White House at the time, actually worked quite a bit on the Arab Spring,” McFaul said. “For us, it was the people in their own countries trying to take fate into their hands. We had nothing to do with it except react to the people of Tunisia, the people of Egypt…”

Putin saw it differently. He thought the CIA was fomenting unrest in the Middle East. McFaul said he didn’t have any evidence “to back him up” but he thought the Libyan U.N. abstention was the reason Putin decided to run for president again.

The Parliamentary elections of 2011 were fraudulent. Tens of thousands of young, upwardly mobile and social-media savvy Russians protested against the results. Putin couldn’t understand as the country had grown wealthy under his presidency. Putin started to vilify the U.S.; McFaul was portrayed in the media as aiding the protesters.

McFaul planned to step down as ambassador after the Sochi Olympics. His term as ambassador from 2012 – 2014 was tumultuous after Vladimir Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency. The time period coincided the Ukrainian Parliament voting to remove President Viktor Yanukovych from office, leading to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. All of this occurred as Putin sought the Ukraine to join his Eurasian Economic Union.

“Who would spend $50 billion on the Olympics only to see the good will it created gone in three days?”,  McFaul asked.


Land of the Tiger

When Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens opened its doors in May 1914, its animal collection consisted of one red-tail deer. For its centennial celebration this year, the zoo planned a much grander display. The $9.5 million Land of the Tiger attraction is the new home to three Malayan tiger brothers, and Lucy and Berani, a pair of rare Sumatran tigers.

The Trails at Land of the Tiger

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is the first zoo in the country to have an animal trail system for big cats. PJA Architects and Landscape Architects of Seattle, a global zoo design company, was selected to design the 2.5 acre exhibit. The tigers are able to roam around the attraction via enclosed fortified trail.

A large air-conditioned guest viewing building within Land of the Tigers offers spectacular views of the landscaped exhibit from behind glass walls. Portions of the trail are approximately 12 feet above a guest area where the tigers might happen to stroll by.

HAPPY 13th BIRTHDAY, BERANI!  Of the six  living subspecies of tiger, Sumatrans are the smallest in size. His name means “bold” in Malay, the dominant language of Indonesia.
HAPPY 13th BIRTHDAY, BERANI! Of the six living subspecies of tiger, Sumatrans are the smallest in size. His name means “bold” in Malay, the dominant language of Indonesia.

“There is friendly competition between zoos to create new and innovative exhibits especially in the categories of improving guest experience and the welfare of their animals,” said Dan Dembiec by email. Dembiec is Supervisor of Mammals at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. 

“The trail idea for large cats is an innovative one that has been tossed around in concept at professional conferences and meetings.  We like to take pride that we are the first that we know of to take the initiative to implement it,” he said.

Indigenous to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Sumatran tigers face habitat destruction, fragmentation and poaching, and are considered a critically endangered species with fewer than 400 existing in the wild today, according to World Wildlife Fund.

Jaya is a three-year-old Malayan Tiger. He is in a pool created under a waterfall "showing off" for guests at the attraction. His two brother's names are Bunga and Penari.
Jaya is a three-year-old Malayan Tiger. He is in a pool created under a waterfall “showing off” for guests at the attraction. His two brother’s names are Bunga and Penari.

The Zoo is pro-active in animal conservation efforts and participates over in 20 Species Survival Plans (SSP). The SSP program was developed in 1981 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to help ensure the survival of threatened and endangered species in AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. The SSPs are managed by AZA Taxon  Advisory Groups (TAG), which develop recommendations for animal management and conservation based on the needs on the individual zoo and well-being of the species. A taxon is a similar grouping of animals.

The Tiger SSP and Felid TAG recommended Lucy and Berani as a breeding pair of Sumatran tigers. Lucy is three years old and was transferred to the Jacksonville Zoo on Dec. 5, 2013 from the Oklahoma City Zoo. Berani will be 13 years old this month and was transferred on Dec. 28, 2013 from the Akron Zoo in Ohio. 

The Tiger SSP selected Christina Dembiec of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in October 2013 as an SSP Education Advisor. Their role is advising, designing and executing conservation education, community outreach and public awareness decisions and activities within AZA Animal Programs. Some other felid SSP education advisors are lions, jaguars and ocelots.



Photographs by Karen Gardner


  • Christina DembiecCommunity Education Manager, Tiger SSP Education Advisor, Jacksonville Zoo, dembiecc@jacksonvillezoo.org

  • Dan Dembiec. Supervisor of Mammals, Felid TAG Steering Committee Member, Jacksonville Zoo, dembiecd@jacksonvillezoo.org

  •  Philip Alia, Deputy Director of Marketing & Community Relations  aliap@jacksonvillezoo.org and Amy Hernden, marketing/media herndena@jacksonvillezoo.org (out-of-office)

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Left-handed people die younger

A new study released on Thurs., Sept. 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine shows left-handed people have shorter life expectancies than do right-handed people. The study was conducted by psychology professor Diane Halpern of California State University at San Bernardino and Stanley Coren, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

[Facts box: 1). 10 percent the U.S. population is left-handed. 2). Right-handed people average age at death is 75 years; left-handed people average  age at death is 66 years. 3). Right-handed females average age at death is 78 years; left-handed females average at death is 72 years. 4). Right-handed males average age at death is 62; left-handed males average age at death is 73 years longer than left-handed males.]

The study was conducted to determine why fewer left-handed people are among the elderly population. Researchers studied death certificates of 987 people in two southern California counties. Halpern said, “The results are striking in their magnitude.”

Halpern said her study should be interpreted cautiously. “It should not, of course, be used to predict the life span of any one individual. It does not take into account the fitness of any individual.”

The results also showed left-handed people were four times more likely to die from injuries while driving than right-handed people and six times more likely to die from accidents of all kinds. “Almost all engineering is geared to the right hand and right foot,” Halpern said. “There are many more car and other accidents among left-handers because of their environment.”

Halpern is right-handed. “Some of my best friends are left-handed,” she said. “It’s important that mothers of left-handed children not be alarmed and not try to change which hand a child uses”.

“There are many, many old left-handed people. We knew for years that there weren’t as many old left-handers,” Halpern said. “Researchers thought that was because in the early years of the century, most people born left-handed were forced to change to their right hands. So we thought we were looking at old people who used to be left-handed, but we weren’t. The truth was that there weren’t many left-handers left alive, compared to right-handers.”

“I’m surprised by the findings. But you never know what kind of accidents can happen to anyone,” said Jeff Coman, 60, a senior irrigation technician at the University of North Florida. Coman is left-handed. He said he doesn’t have a problem working with machinery, but most of the work he does is on a computer. Coman has Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) in his left hand.

“My sister is left-handed but has no trouble with driving her car,” said Matt Sanducci, a junior from University of North Florida. “She was confused when she was little because everyone else in the family was right-handed, but it doesn’t bother her now,” he said.

Sanducci, a Sigma Chi fraternity member, said he was concerned by the statistics for automobile accidents and would share the information with his sister.



Story idea: Land of the Tiger?


A breeding pair of Sumatran Tigers named Lucy and Berani, and three Malayan tiger brothers, are the stars of The Land of the Tiger, the latest exhibit to open at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

The 2.5 acre state-of-the-art habitat provides an active experience for visitors and encourages the natural behavior of tigers, while allowing them to safely roam the attraction through a fortified trail system.

Original photograph taken inside the Land of the Tiger visitor's center.  June 2014

Original photograph taken inside the Land of the Tiger visitor’s center. June 2014


The Land of the Tiger is so new the zoo has yet to offer a “behind the scenes” tour of the exhibit. The photograph at left was taken with a Canon zoom-lense from inside the glass-enclosed visitor center. There at around 11:30 a.m. each day, the tiger trainer offers an overview of the exhibit and maintenance of the tigers.

After attending her workshop, she would be available for follow-up questions. I spoke with her in June; she works through the education center.

Amy Herndon is a public relations officer for the zoo. She can provide further background on the original plans of the $9.5 million expansion to the zoo’s Asia precinct.

One interesting fact about  the tigers is that  based on the recommendation of the Sumatran Tiger Species Survival Plan program, Lucy and Berani were transferred to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

This story would include a descriptive walk to the center. I am reminded of the tranquil Asian courtyard with Koi pond.




The City of Jacksonville distills used cooking oil from places like Naval Station Mayport and EverBank  Stadium into biodiesel. At its Fleet Management Center, the biodiesel is blended with diesel to comply with state environmental requirements. One of the byproducts of the distillation process is glycerin, which Fleet Management sends to JEA. They took over the city of Jacksonville’s water and sewer department in 1997 and are under strict mandate to control the level of nitrogen it discharges into the St. Johns river.

Casey Nettles, a JEA project manager, developed a process in 2011 to remove nitrogen from waste water using glycerin. One of the causes of algal blooms is nitrogen run-off into the river.

This story would be an update on JEA’s process as explained by Casey Nettles.

St. Johns Riverkeeper – algal bloom

St. Johns Riverkeeper – algal bloom





Descriptive Diagnostic

I knew there would be some type of glitch the first day on campus after a five-year absence. The dry run I had planned for Monday never happened. Meanwhile, the shuttle route to remote parking Lot 18 had changed.

The driver pointed out the stop for Bldg 14D. A few students got off with me and I followed their lead, passing between two enormous buildings. According to the campus map they house Biological and Social sciences. I asked a woman standing still on one of the sidewalks how to get to 14D. She smiled and said she was going there herself.

I told her I hadn’t been on campus in five years. “Well,” she said,”you’re never too old.” I didn’t catch her name but she was awfully nice. She brought me to my classroom. I was about to open the door when she said, “No! You have to wait until the other class finishes.”  I started laughing and asked her the time. Then I rolled my eyes because it was only 10:30 a.m. She laughed, too.

After class and for some unknown reason, I thought I could still catch the Lot 18 shuttle in front of the library, so I walked there. Two students were having a conversation which I may have rudely interrupted by asking if this shuttle went to Lot 18. The girl said no, this was the shuttle to the Town Center.  I told her that I’d just walk to my car and she said, “Honestly, that’s the best way.”

I came to a crossroads at the pond by Coggin CoB (Bldg 42). I asked the nearest person which way I should go to get to the parking lot. She pointed across the pond and said, “I’m not sure. I think maybe …”.  She glanced to her right towards Honors Hall. That way looked daunting so I went left.

Now I see I went the long way, but probably easier-to-navigate way, around the pond. I passed Petway Hall and the Student Union where I asked a guy sitting at table outside if I would eventually get to Lot 18.

“Yep. Just follow everyone walking toward the athletic field,” he said with a big grin.

So I did, and eventually, I found my car.