After Summerfield Zoo in Belvidere was hit by a tornado last year, owners Rick and Tammy Anderson wondered if they’d have to close shop. Then something wonderful happened.
Summerfield Zoo, 3088 Flora Road in Belvidere, has mostly bounced back from the tornado destruction it endured last year, thanks to a supportive community that believed the zoo was worth saving.
“We’re still patching things up, but are mostly back to where we were before the storm,” says Tammy Anderson, co-owner with husband Rick.
The storm left the Andersons with more than $200,000 in damage. They had to replace fencing, shelters and some buildings. Two animals, an emu and a black swan, were killed.
“When I first came out that night to see what damage had been done, I couldn’t believe it,” says Rick. “All I could think of was that we had to close, that everything we had worked for was over.”
Then something happened.
“The whole street was lined with cars full of people wanting to know how they could help,” Rick recalls. “The support was amazing.” The Anderson’s daughter Danielle enlisted the help of policewoman Sandy Rogers, who knew how to manage people at disaster sites.
“That weekend, hundreds of people turned out to help in every way they could,” Rick recalls. “The whole thing was remarkable and it made me realize we were just beginning again. It was a no-brainer. I realized we had to keep going and rebuild because people care about what we do.”
Today, the zoo is home to about 200 animals on 13 acres of the 120-acre farm owned by the Andersons. Summerfield Zoo has operated since 1990 and has been opened to the public for eight years.
Most of the animals have been rescued from homes or from zoos no longer in operation. Summerfield Zoo is unique in that exotic birds roam freely around the property and baby animals are often the subject of “encounter talks” that take place every day the zoo is open. The talks are at noon Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Fridays; 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturdays; and at noon and 2 p.m. on Sundays.
This past spring ushered in not only a new beginning for the zoo buildings and grounds, but for many animals. Species giving birth included reindeer, wolves, ring-tailed lemurs, porcupines, wallabies, Patagonian cavy, African servals, monkeys, parrots, alligators, pygmy goats and the critically endangered monkey known as cotton top tamarin.
The zoo just broke ground for an Arctic fox habitat, a memorial gift from a local family. The living space for the foxes will soon be larger, with more trees and rocky areas to climb, more spaces for dens and a larger viewing area for the public.
“These animals are fun to watch because they interact a lot with people when being viewed and they change from season to season,” says Rick. “In the winter, they have a thick, fluffy white coat and in the summer they’re short-haired and dark grey.”
Another big project underway is making separate habitats for the Arctic wolves and grey wolves, which will cost about $60,000. So far, a page has been set up at gofundme.com and staff is contemplating other ways to interest people in donating to the project, the largest undertaking at the zoo to date. The Andersons hope to finish the project this year.
“As we often do, we started with a rescued wolf, got another one, and then we had a family of wolves,” says Rick. “When animals are in captivity, we try to do everything possible to make their environment as natural as possible. Whether or not animals are breeding, they need to be in a setting conducive to breeding so they won’t get bored and lethargic,” he says.
Before winter sets in, the Andersons hope to have new quarters for the alligators, Patagonian cavy, and African porcupines.
Last fall, a hyena habitat was built and named in memory of animal lover and local WREX-13 anchor Jeannie Hayes, who spent a lot of time supporting and reporting about the work at Summerfield Zoo. Shenzee, a baby hyena at the time, was the last animal to be featured on the news with Jeannie, who died after a brief battle with cancer in 2012.
All zoos play an important role in educating people about how they can help animals species to survive.
“I hope people will learn to understand that species of animals become endangered because of what people are doing to the earth,” says Tammy. “People get a greater appreciation for wildlife when they see them in person and our hope is that some will be inspired to go into careers to care for and protect animals.”
“People learn to love and respect wildlife when they see animals up close, learn about their habits and lifestyles, and their role in the world,” says Rick. “We want to educate people and get them to care about animals. People get a totally different idea about animals when they see them in person and hold them.”
People need to be more realistic about owning exotic animals, says Rick.
“Some people think they can raise wild animals but soon find out it’s a lot more work than they thought it was going to be,” Rick says. “They get to a point where they just don’t know what to do with the animal anymore because it’s grown too large. That’s when they call us.”
The zoo welcomes volunteers and has a core volunteer staff of about 10 people at any given time. During the summer, college students majoring in one of the sciences, such as biology, zoology or veterinarian studies, work as interns.
The interns get hands-on experience learning about animals and their diets, habitats, feeding and cleaning needs. Most choose to continue in their fields and some decide it’s not for them.
The Andersons have lived on the property for about 30 years and got their start training horses. They owned some exotic animals and people began bringing them unwanted pets.
“We just sort of fell into it and found ourselves making plans to care for the animals,” Rick says. “We had short-term goals of caring for animals that otherwise wouldn’t be cared for, but our long-term goals are always changing because we never know what the next day will bring.”
Summerfield Zoo is supported entirely by donations, admission fees, gift shop purchases and money raised through special events; it receives no government funding.
The zoo is open Wednesday through Sunday through mid-August and then weekends-only through Sept. 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.