Shore Thing: Reid Park Zoo Throws a ‘Beach Party’ for Summer Safari Nights

Jeff Gardner, Tucson Weekly
Reid Park Zoo staff feeds the elephants during their morning checkup.

Although Tucson is located multiple hours from the nearest seashore, the Reid Park Zoo is inviting the public to a beach party featuring elephants, alligators and plenty of other animals that love to splash in the water. The beach party is the latest installation in the Reid Park Zoo's Summer Safari Nights, where the public can enjoy some special talks about various animals, plus live music, food and drinks, family games and activities with the wildlife.

On Saturday, May 22, their "Pollinator Power" themed night highlighted animals like bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. The "Beach Party" night on Saturday, May 29, will show off the sandy and aquatic elements of elephants, otters, bears and more.

Although typically observed in forests and grasslands, elephants are known to be strong swimmers. The Reid Park Zoo has five African Elephants who get to take a dip in the zoo's 90,000-gallon pool to beat the heat. But this is only the beginning of their care. While they enjoy swimming themselves, the zoo staff also offers the elephants "spa days" during the summer. The Reid Park Zoo also has mud holes (or "wallows") where the elephants like Nandi and baby Penzi can cover themselves.

"If you want to take care of elephants, you need to take care of their skin," said Cassie Dodds, an elephant care supervisor for Reid Park Zoo. "They need the right consistency of clay and moisture to protect them from the sun and insects."

Dodds highlighted the importance of maintaining the elephants' feet. The animals require the right consistency of sand and dirt for feet because they're so heavy—the largest elephant at Reid Park weighs a massive 13,000 pounds. Maintenance involves daily foot checks where the elephants raise one foot onto a fence so the zookeepers can check their pads for any problems.

Training for these types of checks involves feeding them cucumber, lettuce, zucchini and carrots as rewards, whereas they normally eat foods like hay and tree branches. The zoo even works with local tree trimmers to obtain some of their food.

The training and swimming typically happen with the elephants together, due to the importance of family groups. Dodds says the zoo puts a lot of effort into making sure they're socializing, although the zookeepers try to stay out of the elephants' hierarchy. They even learned that the elephants can recognize individual zookeepers despite COVID masks, because they rely more on their senses of smell and hearing rather than sight.

"We've learned it's best to give them the right environment to take care of themselves," Dodds said. "Keeping them healthy is about the environment."

The more explicitly aquatic animals featured at the upcoming Summer Safari Nights are the zoo's African spotted-necked otters, which swim and slide around their enclosure in the center of the zoo. Their Reid Park home features a combination of grass, dirt, water and driftwood, similar to their natural habitats of rivers and swamps. The African spotted-necked otters can hold their breath for up to 5 minutes.

"Otters are built for swimming and life in the water, and they even have flippers," said Jennifer Stoddard, education supervisor for Reid Park Zoo. "Their eyesight is also great underwater, which is the main way they find their food."

Although their typical diet mostly consists of fish and some crustaceans, they have a fondness for cucumber, which is often given out by the zookeepers for training and presentation purposes.

"Although they spend so much time in the water, they don't have blubber, but a double layer of fur that helps them keep warm no matter how the water is," Stoddard said.

As with many other Reid Park Zoo events, conservation is an important element of Summer Safari Nights, with staff discussing how visitors can support different animals at the event. To help the otters, Stoddard says Reid Park Zoo visitors should do what the otters already do, and eat sustainable seafood. The only difference being humans can check the packaging of their food for sustainability certifications.

The Reid Park Zoo's Summer Safari Nights continue every Saturday through Aug. 14. Upcoming themes include large animals, reptiles, animal athletes, American animals and art in the animal kingdom. For more information, visit

Reid Park Zoo Summer Safari Nights Beach Party

5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, May 29
3400 Zoo Court
$10.50 for adults, $6.50 for children

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