Guarantee Animal Encounters

Photo Courtesy of Pedro Damian Photography

Photo Courtesy of Pedro Damian Photography

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania in East Africa and view the famous Serengeti annual migration, the largest and longest overland migration on earth. In earlier times, visitors brought home trophies of the “Big 5,” but fortunately today most leave with only photographs of the beautiful African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros, and lion.

The first stop in Tanzania was an inner-city park designed to educate the local children and families on the importance of protecting their natural heritage. The 20-acre park featured a half mile of interpretive trails. The first sign stated “KARIBU-welcome! You are about to start a journey… following the tracks of the wildebeest. You will learn about the Serengeti migrants and their annual cycle.” The walk was memorable, as trail signage was accompanied by sculptures featuring wildlife that I would soon see on the savannah. And then it hit me— a similar concept could be implemented back home in McAllen, Texas.

A Jumping-Off Point

Owned and operated by the McAllen Parks & Recreation Department, Quinta Mazatlan opened in 2006 as a “mansion with a mission.” The department works to enrich people’s lives by sharing knowledge of birds, animals, and plants, and to encourage stewardship of South Texas. My challenge as the manager is that the agency doesn’t get the “Big 5,” and would be lucky to guarantee sightings of a “Little 5.” So how could staff members entertain, educate, and inspire while communicating our own bio-diversity in a small city park? A Forest Sculpture Trail was the answer!

We began by creating a story line starring the creatures of South Texas. Thanks to the advisory board, we hosted an evening reception at a sculptor’s studio and invited hundreds of guests for free. Douglas Clark, a talented local artist who works in bronze, agreed to create some “clay models” even before we had the first donor. The models were integral in helping sponsors visualize the final pieces in bronze, and commit to a sponsorship.

Four years later, we have completed Phase I, featuring 24 bronze sculptures along the Forest Sculpture Trail. Board members, staff, and donors had to be patient with the timeline, as making a bronze sculpture is a highly skilled art. The life-size or larger sculptures range in price from $7,000 for a Cactus Wren to $20,000 for a

Photo Courtesy of Agustin J. Villarreal

Photo Courtesy of Agustin J. Villarreal

white-tailed doe and fawn. Fifty percent of the final price is customarily paid in advance to the artist to facilitate design and to purchase materials. Because of the generosity of families and corporate donors, the sculpture trail attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Each donor is recognized with his or her name engraved on a boulder along with information on the creature at the base of the sculpture.

All donors were thrilled when it came time to pour and install their sculptures, but we did hear comments like “Why is it taking so long?” and “What is the completion date?” Supporters wanted to see an ending. So we decided to hold a celebration honoring the 24 donors and announce the completion of Phase I and kick off Phase II. A reception was held at the art foundry and a “jaguar” bronze was poured for education and entertainment purposes. All 24 donors for Phase I were presented with a framed photograph of their “sculpture,” and the advisory board invited new donors to join the family circle. We received commitments for six more sculptures that evening, which will take the artist 12 to 16 months to complete. For those who may be considering a sculpture trail, it takes time—so be patient! 

Planning For Interaction 

The Forest Sculpture Trail is a unique attraction as it integrates art and nature. Our granite gravel trail is a half-mile long and shaded by ebony and mesquite trees. The sculpture species have all been placed in their “habitats,” so there is a treasure hunt going on—a mountain lion might surprise you around the bend! We have themed trails based on a story line. For instance, the Cat Trail features the six wild cats of Texas. The jaguar, jaguarundi, ocelot, and margay are all listed as “endangered.” In addition, Texas also claims as residents the mountain lion and the bobcat. A children’s favorite is to “ride” the mountain lion!

While the sculptures are designed to be accessible and user-friendly, there was an obvious concern regarding safety and security. The smaller and more delicate sculptures—the Harris’s Hawk nest and bird, Texas tortoise, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird—required some installation planning to prevent theft and ensure stability when touched. Parks and recreation welders designed and constructed stable stands and platforms, in concrete when necessary, to provide a safe attraction.

With the sculptures designed to be touched, the visually impaired and others were invited to appreciate their beauty. Children typically pet and hug the animal sculptures. There was a special moment when a school group of visually impaired children was touching the

Photo Courtesy of Quinta Mazatlan

Photo Courtesy of Quinta Mazatlan

Chachalaca sculpture. The sculpture features a mother, father, and two baby birds, and the students were discussing the size differentiation. Quinta Mazatlan happens to specialize in this species—and a family of birds flew in and landed on a nearby branch, calling in chorus for the children, “cha-cha-la-ca, cha-cha-la-ca.” It was a magical experience.

There is one creature, however, that does not get hugged, and that is the Texas indigo snake. The stone inscription states, “This native is large, black, and non-venomous, so harmless. Snakes that eat venomous snakes, like rattle snakes, are ’friends of humanity.’ They den in burrows left by other animals. Like many snakes, it will often shake its tail as a warning–even though it does not possess a rattle. Respect this threatened valuable snake.”

Appreciating The Animals

Quinta Mazatlan offers weekly nature tours with a naturalist sharing information about the wildlife and their need for habitat in order to survive. The guaranteed animal sightings along the sculpture trail allow the guide to follow a script that creates a “wow” experience, regardless of nature’s cooperation that day. Self-guided walks are easy for families and school groups because of the engraved information on the stones and the trail booklets at the front desk.

Although I have been out of Africa for a long time, the magic of the Serengeti will always stay with me. The experience of the heart, made up of what I saw, heard, smelled, and touched, has stayed with me. While a small city wildlife park can’t offer the full experience, we hope the Forest Sculpture Trail does allow a better understanding and appreciation of our ThornForest. We hope it will encourage families and friends to want to explore more, read more, plant more, and support conservation—to take the magic with them.

Colleen Curran Hook is the Manager of Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center, City of McAllen Eco-tourism Project (promoting conservation through travel to natural areas). Reach her at chook@mcallen.net or 956-681-3370.

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