Zoologist gets on stage to get people outdoors

Gig Harbor’s Maureen O’Keefe will take zoo visitors on an adventure in this summer’s ‘Indiana Bones and the Golden Treasure’

Staff writerMay 7, 2014 

Maureen O’Keefe, a senior staff biologist at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, will add another title to her resume: Barkeologist.

The Gig Harbor resident will join Herald, the zoo’s beagle mix show star, on a geocache adventure at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater this summer. Herald plays Barkeologist Dr. Indiana Bones in a search for the Golden Treasure. Along the way, he and O’Keefe will see animals running across bridges, flying over the audience and scurrying along the custom-made back wall of the theater.

O’Keefe moved to Gig Harbor with her husband 13 years ago when she took the job at the zoo. She had previously been working in Australia. She started performing in animal shows in 1985 in California.

A Bay Area native, she grew up near an animal park, which gave her a love for performing with animals and providing visitors with up-close experiences.

“The main focus of the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater is to get people outdoors and really experience nature,” O’Keefe said.

The PDZA show revamps every other year. This is the premier of the Indiana Bones plot line. The show is written by show staff. Those who are familiar with the popular Indiana Jones movies will find plenty of allusions to the films. One highlight is Dr. Bones out-running an oncoming boulder.

“This (show) was one of our biggest challenges,” O’Keefe said. “It’s the first time our stage has really looked different.”

A new feature is a tall rope-and-slat bridge on center stage. It’s O’Keefe’s favorite part of the show. A coendou named Nigel, a type of porcupine, will run across the bridge in the show. A coati chooses to use the ropes.

The focus is on geocaching, an outdoor treasure hunt game that involves GPS tracking. O’Keefe said it’s an excellent way to get out of the house and experience the outdoors with family and friends.

To help get visitors started, Dr. Bones himself will lead visitors on a geocache hunt on zoo grounds after the shows.

It’s an opportunity for visitors to see animals they wouldn’t see anywhere else. Like the Harris’s hawk, a distinctive hunter.

Harris’s hawks “are really cool, because they hunt in groups — like wolves,” O’Keefe said.

Other animal allies include Thurston, the striped skunk; Tilli, the aardvark; Sheldon, the two-toed sloth; Tahoma, the bald eagle; and Jumbo Jet, the radiated tortoise that walks across the stage. Getting him to head across the stage wasn’t an easy task for show staff.

“You have to be very patient and they have to be very motivated,” O’Keefe said of the tortoises.

When it comes to animals, O’Keefe is a cat person, but not the usual house cat kind of person. She likes to work with tigers and the rare clouded leopards.

“This is the best job anywhere,” she said. “I get to work with such a wide variety of animals, it’s just amazing.”

The other amazing thing to O’Keefe is how the show has opened hearts and wallets to conservation efforts. After each show, with a donation, visitors can get a picture with Herald. Since he was adopted from the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society, Herald has raised more than $40,000 for conservation efforts in four seasons of the show.

Since 2002, donations from the public have funded more than $1 million in grants awarded by the zoo’s Dr. Holly Reed Conservation Fund to study and conserve wildlife and wild places.

For O’Keefe, the rewarding part of performing isn’t being on stage or beefing up her “barkeology” credentials, it’s the evidence that the message hit home with the audience.

Each show, the performers use a catchphrase about conservation and the great outdoors. Walking around the zoo, hearing it shared with children and parents and other visitors, O’Keefe feels like she’s made a difference.

The Great Outdoors is the real Golden Treasure.

If you go

Indiana Bones and the Golden Treasure will run through the summer, starting May 3.

Show times:

Noon and 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and noon on weekdays from May 3 to June 20. Two shows a day starting June 21 and running through Labor Day.

Where: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma.

Karen Miller: 253-358-4155 karen.miller@gateline.com Twitter: @gateway_karen

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