SAN JOSE — It is never too late to cross going on a safari off of your bucket list — just head to Happy Hollow Zoo.
“Such a nice place to walk, the animals are all just starting to come out and about,” said 59 year-old Katherine Zimmerman from San Jose. “My husband and I love the chickens, they were running them around for a bit.”
Walking through the paved pathways lined with trees and bamboo — surrounded by lemurs, meerkats, anteaters and turkey vultures — the zoo comes to life, attracting kids and parents of all ages. Even if children are well out of the house, Happy Hollow Zoo really welcomes people of all ages. The Senior Safari every fourth Thursday of the month through October offers senior citizens over 50 years-old the opportunity to get out and explore the zoo at their own pace.
The program started in 2015 as a way for seniors to rekindle their inner child and exercise while watching the zoo wake-up — free of charge.
“We want seniors to enjoy nature and be a kid again,” said Kiersten McCormick, Assistant General Manager of Happy Hollow Zoo. “I’ve seen seniors go down the slide at Redwood Lookout and ride the rollercoaster.”
The park opens 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. for the program and seniors are welcome to stay in the zoo during the day with their family when gates open at 10:00 a.m. Part of the experience is seeing the zoo wake-up, with specialists feeding the animals and getting them to do their morning exercise too.
“Chickens, let’s go!” Mandy McGuire, one of the zoo’s animal specialists, can be heard shouting during one of the typical morning calls. “We call this one Breakfast with the Chickens.”
McGuire said seniors love interacting with the animals, whether it comes to feeding or petting.
One special part of the Safari is the Animal Chats, when seniors listen in and get up close and personal with some of the animals. McGuire leads some of these Animal Chats, covering a range of tropical animals from as far away as Madagascar.
“One of the favorites is Lucille, Lucille the ball python,” McGuire said. “Lucille Ball Python — the name is corny, but they love it.”
Not all of the animals are up and out early — the capybara isn’t a morning person, but the red pandas are always an adorable hit with the older folks. In addition to watching the sleeping risers, seniors can take tours, sample healthy breakfast foods, ride one of the rides, engage in art or exercise with one of the zoo’s activities like hula-hooping or line dancing.
George Linter from San Jose was excited to get on Happy Hollow’s Pacific Fruit Express roller coaster.
“I’m 56 years-young,” Linter said. “I still like doing all the things my grandkids do and I’ll do it with them after I test it for myself — for safety purposes, of course.”
Kaiser worked with the zoo through a grant and developed 10,000 step paths throughout the park to help seniors get to their fitness goals. Now, sponsored by [The] Health Trust — an organization promoting health in Silicon Valley — seniors can talk to a Health Trust specialist about healthy habits and staying active.
The idea for the Safari came through discussions with the San Jose Rotary Club and local visitors who said that San Jose needed more safe places for seniors to get out and be social, according to executive director of the Happy Hollow Foundation Heather Lerner.
“Part of this is that we got feedback from older citizens that they wanted to come to the zoo but didn’t feel comfortable because they didn’t have young children anymore,” Lerner said. “So we thought, why not make a special time for them?”
On a recent Thursday, the zoo’s Senior Safari hosted officials from [The] Health Trust, county supervisor Dave Cortese and two city councilmembers to talk about the Safari being an age-friendly event.
“It’s a great, safe place to be to enjoy the outdoors,” said San Jose’s 67 year-old Lisa Derby. “And after this, my grandkids will come and I’ll get to spend the day with them too.”
That special time has attracted as many as 800 seniors for one Safari, welcoming seniors from near and far, as Happy Hollow Zoo is accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is ADA accessible. Both San Jose City and the AZA have accredited Happy Hollow Zoo as one of the safest and most ecological areas in the city for seniors to enjoy exotic nature.
“I hope we can inspire other zoos to do this,” Lerner said. “Seniors are such a great part of the community and we want them to get out and have that vibrancy that they had as children.”