Zoo debut: Panaewa reopens after 16-month closure

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Leilani Williams climbs up a monarch butterfly that is used as a children's play area at the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo on Monday, July 19, 2021.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Justice, left, and Journey Kato pose for a photo Monday in front of the new mural at the main entrance of the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo. The Katos were excited to return to the zoo since it’s a summer pastime for the family.

  • KELSEY WALLING photos/Tribune-Herald Opal Ray looks at the black swan near the entrance at Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, enjoying how close the swan came to the fence to say hello.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Kahu Kimo Awai chants and blesses the front entrance of the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo. The county wanted to bless the space since the zoo has changed so drastically.

As storm clouds drifted away, Kahu Kimo Awai blessed the front entrance of the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens while keiki watched with bated breath.

On Monday morning, Hawaii County Parks and Recreation hosted a blessing ceremony to signify the reopening of the zoo after nearly 16 months of closure.

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Since closing at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors and crews have been working on a $10 million renovation to bring the zoo in compliance with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dozens of families came to the entrance right at 10 a.m. to be the first visitors of the new and improved zoo.

“The response is overwhelming, we didn’t expect this many people here, so it’s incredible to see,” said Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina. “Even though it’s a rainforest zoo, we’re happy the rain held off for a little bit. The ceremony was beautiful and we appreciate everyone who came out to enjoy it.”

Since the renovation took so much time and transformed the interior of the zoo, Parks and Recreation wanted to host a blessing to mark the zoo’s new beginning.

“All of our workers have been working tirelessly to make this opening happen,” Messina said. “We wanted to use the blessing to signify a new start and to bless our employees, the animals and the zoo.”

After the blessing, families shuffled onto new pavement and through the doors to see the freshly landscaped zoo with newly painted murals and benches.

Kahea Kato and her children, Justice and Journey, were among the first to arrive for a morning at the zoo.

“This is a normal summer activity for us, so we are stoked to be back,” Kato said. “We’re all animal lovers, but they especially love watching and learning about new animals.”

Kato said her son, Justice, was most excited to see the ‘alala in the aviary after attending a summer camp dedicated to learning about native birds.

Members of the Hawaii Island chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental conservation group, came to the reopening of the zoo to see the ‘alala and to get more information on conservation efforts.

“It was disappointing to see what happened when the ‘alala were reintroduced to their native environment,” said Sierra Club member Rob Culbertson.

Culbertson was referring to the ‘Alala Project’s halted reintroduction efforts of ‘alala due to threats by the ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk.

“I am excited to see if the ‘alala living in the aviary becomes a great opportunity for future conservation of the species,” he said.

During a sudden downpour of rain, volunteer Jean Jasina took cover under the main pavilion with visitors while holding onto the blue parrot, Rowdy.

“Even though it’s a little crazy, I’m excited to see everyone back here and having a good time,” Jasina said. “Rowdy seems a little unsure, but I think many of the animals got used to having the zoo be so empty. He’ll get used to it again with time.”

The tiger Sriracha was happy to have an audience once again and started pacing by the crowd along her new fence.

While keiki were mostly preoccupied with looking at the animals, many adults were impressed with the changes made to the zoo.

“The kids were chomping at the bit for the zoo to open, so we’re all excited to be here,” Melissa Pierce said. “It seems like the design is more seamless and it’s overall much nicer.”

Nick Williams watched as his kids, Leilani and George, climbed on a new iguana bench to get a good look at the iguana.

“We would come all the time when it was opened, especially for the petting zoo,” Williams said. “They love climbing on the play areas and they never get tired of looking at the animals.”

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The zoo is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com.