For many, January means the close of the holiday season and the inevitable return to reality – work, school, routine. But for the people and animals at the Conservators Center, the start of the new year brings more celebratory cheer in the form of our favorite winter event: Tree Toss! Tree Toss is an annual holiday tradition for our furry residents, celebrated by the amazing staff, volunteers, business partners, and guests who come from far and wide to participate in this extraordinary event.
Cranberry Tree Farm, a North Carolina Christmas tree vendor, donated their unsold trees to the Center for Tree Toss, and we gave the trees to our animal residents as a special form of holiday enrichment. They loved the strong scent of the pine and the scratchy textures of the trees! The event is designed to be a self-guided walkabout, so guests were able to spend as much time as they wanted admiring the residents that they liked the most. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers were stationed throughout the park to talk about our animals as they played with their new toys, and to answer any questions that arose as visitors watched.
Preparation for Tree Toss began long before event day, with tree collections, decoration and enrichment creation, calls for volunteer participation, collaboration with our invaluable business partners, and, of course, invitation dissemination!
The day of the event, preparation started at the crack of dawn for keepers and animal care volunteers. As soon as the park opened and decorations were ready to be placed, it was all hands on-deck for the remaining staff and event volunteers.
While the animal husbandry team prepared nutritious meals for our residents and cleaned enclosures, our beloved army of volunteers helped fill buckets that were to be used for decorating purposes later in the day with scrumptious meat treats, whipped cream, streamers, and a variety of scents.
Outside the animal park, guests and volunteers were given the opportunity to create their own toys for our residents at Arthur’s Toy Shop, our do-it-yourself enrichment station. They used donated materials, such as cardboard boxes, paper, burlap sacks, and animal-safe paint to make a plethora of animal-shaped boxes for all our residents. Volunteers placed the enrichment items inside empty primary enclosure spaces while the animals watched from their secondary holding areas with excitement and visitors enjoyed a casual lunch and mingled in the green space outside the Gift Shop. With a warm breeze in the air and succulent pulled pork from the Porchetta food truck in the bellies of guests, volunteers, and staff, the afternoon was off to a great start!
As the clock struck one, the large animal side of the park opened to the public.
Our sibling pair of leopards, Ramsey and Savannah, watched with growing anticipation as all the trees and enrichment items were distributed by volunteers. It wasn’t long before the lead keeper was ready to let in the eager big cats who couldn’t wait to play with and destroy all the fun toys that had been made just for them!
As soon as the leopards were given access, Ramsey immediately began ripping down some colorful streamers that crisscrossed the entire enclosure. Savannah chose to rub against every tantalizing tree in sight, using the branches as back scratchers and the trunks as convenient scratching posts.
Next came Hansen’s Pride, and then Mixed Pride, all of whom seemed to love tearing through their freshly renovated spaces – in short order, Hansen could be seen stroking his mane against the bristly branches of the Christmas trees and foraging for decadent dollops of whipped cream.
Once Wic Tiger and his adopted lion siblings had sniffed, rolled, pounced, and peed on every piece of novel enrichment in their enclosure, it was time to let tigers Freya and Arthur and Kira the lioness have access to their new toys.
During a scheduled Keeper Talk at Kira and Arthur’s enclosure, Kira’s eagerness to play with an elaborately decorated box made the day of one young visitor. A huge smile spread across his face when he realized the box Kira was so intent on tackling was the very same one he had created earlier in the day! His enthusiasm, combined with Kira’s entertaining display of playful behavior with her box, soon brought a smile to the faces of all of those who were gathered for the talk. Kira wasn’t the only animal who delighted guests during Tree Toss, although she may have earned the most laughs when a bit of wrapping paper stuck to her lip and gave her an impromptu mustache!
This was the first official Tree Toss experience for a few of our animal residents, including a member of one of our more unique species, the binturong. Jerry Binturong and his enclosure mate, Stella, were recently moved to a new enclosure in the park, and this Tree Toss was the first time they were visible to guests for the event. Stella was a bit shy and chose to stay inside, but Jerry had a grand time exploring his newly renovated outdoor space, poking and prodding every burlap sack and yanking on each tendril of streamer that weaved across his path. At one point, it even looked like he was testing to see if the thin paper could hold his weight, as though he wanted to test his skills as a tightrope walker!
Our Tree Toss event may not be a holiday that is observed by the masses, but the celebration is a time-honored tradition that continues to bring joy and levity during an otherwise cold and dreary winter.
We want to give a huge shout-out to all of the invaluable volunteers who devoted their time to help Tree Toss run as smoothly as possible, as well as the sponsorships provided by our business partners – without all of you, this event would not have been possible. We also want to thank the Porchetta Food Truck and their staff for their delicious services in the form of pulled pork sandwiches and other amazing lunch offerings, and to Iron Gate Vineyards and Mystery Brewing – your spirits lifted ours! We would not be able to pull off such a fantastic event if it wasn’t for all the amazing people and businesses who came together to make this special day such a success. Last but not least, we must extend our deepest gratitude to all of our marvelous guests who shared in the laughs, the ooh’s and the ah’s, and of course, the “OOF’s!” Thank you, thank you, thank you!
If you are interested in learning more about the wide variety of opportunities to connect with wildlife at the Conservators Center, or if you would like to participate in fun events like Tree Toss in any way, you can contact us here!
Briana Halliwell is one of the Conservators Center’s beloved keepers — and also a fantastic writer who often speaks on behalf of our animals.