The Birmingham Zoo’s Carousel: Spinning Tales about Endangered Species

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 12:56 pm EDT


Birmingham, AL

With the details of each spin in his mind from a colorful menagerie of animals on a merry-go-round, Art Ritchie has built or restored at least five-dozen carousels in the 32 years since he and Daniel Jones founded Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio. But he specifically remembers the Protective Life Carousel at the Birmingham Zoo, because during his restoration work, one of the South’s infamous spring storms ripped the canopy for the carousel right off its cables.

While it delayed the progress, it didn’t put a damper on the centerpiece of the Birmingham Zoo’s Children’s Zoo. Once installed, it immediately began entertaining guests of all ages, including Rusty Keene. Rusty moved from the Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida to take over as Birmingham Zoo’s vice president of operations. A carousel aficionado, Keene was particularly impressed that Birmingham’s carousel was wooden.

Wooden carousels are expensive, costing just over a half million dollars for a 36-foot, 1-chariot, carousel with 33 figures, and more than a million dollars for a 60-foot, 2-chariot merry-go-round with 90 figures. Birmingham’s carousel is 36 feet in diameter with 36 figures and two chariots. “They’re a symbol of prosperity,” Keene says. “Everyone loves them.”

Wooden carousels are very special and grow in value over time. As for those manufactured by Carousel Works, the world’s largest manufacturer of wooden carousels, each design is a one-of-a-kind work of art based on the customer’s request. Designing, carving, painting and installing the ride takes about nine months to a year.

One Birmingham Zoo request was that each of the animals on its carousel represents an endangered or threatened species, and that the scenes painted on the rounding boards be of animals native to the area. The menagerie of animals provides a wonderful learning opportunity. For example, riders may be surprised to learn that the giraffe is endangered. In fact, there are four distinct species of giraffe, two of which – the West African and the Rothschild – are considered endangered and one, the giraffe camelopardalis, is vulnerable.

The manatee and the giant panda still hold spots on the carousel, but in recent years, both have been downlisted from endangered to threatened and vulnerable, respectively.

Carousels can give riders the opportunity to get up close and personal with animals they only see at a distance at zoos. “It’s sweet to see how excited the kids are when they get to ride the jaguar,” says Lindsey Herron, the zoo’s registrar, “especially after they see our live jaguar, Khan. He’s our newest animal at the zoo.”

Choosing which animal to ride can require a lot of thought. Four-year-old Graeme Sullivan of Birmingham wanted to ride the okapi because it was “super high tall.” But when he found out it wasn’t a jumper – standing still without going up-and-down – he opted for the tiger.

The non-jumper animals are good for younger riders or those not entirely comfortable with the carousel’s movement. The chariots provide easy access seating for grandparents and allow handicapped riders to join in on the fun. But for Graeme, waving his arms overhead as he jumped off the carousel, the best part about his ride was that his tiger went, “up and down! Up and down!”

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Eva Robertson
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