by Erin Schilling
Saturdays may be for the Dawgs in the fall, but in the spring, Saturdays are for the bears.
On April 1, 2017, cars overflowed in the Memorial Park parking lot not for football, but to celebrate the birthdays of Athena and Yonah, two of the American black bears at Bear Hollow Zoo.
“I tied balloon bears for almost two hours,” said Clinton Murphy, park coordinator with Athens-Clarke County. “My hands were almost crippled... But there was always education sprinkled among [the entertainment], and I’ve had kids a year later be able to tell me the same stuff they learned here.”
Bear Hollow Zoo is a free-admission zoo that houses non-releasable wildlife with either physical or behavioral problems that prevent them from surviving in the wild. The bears and other species “have been placed here to live out their lives serving as ambassadors for their species,” according to the Bear Hollow Zoo website said.
“We will only appreciate and conserve what we understand,” Murphy said. “Think of an animal in your head that doesn’t exist. There are some people out there who really wouldn’t care about that animal regardless of what it may or may not do for the environment.”
Bear Hollow Zoo is open daily from 9am to 5pm, and the reptile house is open from 1pm to 4pm on Saturdays.
Murphy said the park is funded by the ACC park budget, and having the zoo is beneficial to sparking economic development in a city.
“The citizens of ACC range greatly in economic benefit,” said Murphy. “We are in a unique position to influence the next generation.”
About 70,000 children pass through the zoo annually, and on a typical spring Saturday, it’s not uncommon to have about 1,000 people visit in one day.
Children look through the railings at other animals in Bear Hollow like turkeys, deer and owls. Murphy said that in his 17 years working with the zoo, he realized that all the animals are appreciated by zoo-goers.
“Every animal out there has its own little fan club,” said Murphy. “Every keeper out there has their own favorite as well, from the crankiest opossum—you name it.”
Murphy said the zoo always needs volunteers, and he tries to fill up spaces for the 56 zookeepers they need in a week or the endless amount of docents.
Murphy said these volunteers mostly come from University of Georgia students looking for experience with animal-related jobs, since that market is so competitive. About 5 percent of the volunteers are “townies,” and they’re always looking for people to fill in during UGA breaks or summers.
“We’ve had several of our guys go from school to [Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited] zoos all over the place,” said Murphy. “We have an internship program [during the summer], as well.”
The zoo started in the 1940s as a private collection of wild animals, which was then donated and became a facility of the Athens-Clarke County Department of Leisure Services to emphasize conservation and education.
Murphy said through the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bear Hollow was just your “quintessential crummy zoo. As time progressed and people got more interested, they changed that,” Murphy said.