CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens may not be a stop on the yellow brick road, but the cast and crew of "Wicked" still seem to find their way there whenever they come to town.
Instead of lions, tigers and bears, they met penguins, elephants, red pandas and more as part of the zoo's Behind the Scenes Experiences. The facility offers the tours to let visitors get up close and personal with some of their favorite animals and their care teams. The tours were initially available only to donors, VIPs, zoo employees and volunteers, but the service was expanded to the general public in 2012.
As a "Wicked" fanatic who has seen the show dozens of times in eight cities and six states, Cincinnati Zoo curator of mammals Mike Dulaney has escorted cast and crew members each Monday since their arrival in mid-September. Dulaney said the relationship between the zoo and touring group formed back in 2008 when a representative from the Aronoff Center for the Arts called to set up a tour.
"That's how I first became involved," he said. "They were just so thrilled because they travel from city to city, and they really don't get to see a lot. But to come to the world-famous Cincinnati Zoo and get behind the scenes to interact with some of the animals, it leaves a lasting impression."
Sam Kornau, coordinator of wildlife encounters, said the programs have proved so popular that more will be added for the coming year. All nine encounter types have their core fans, but the elephant and sloth tours always sell out before the season begins. Although prices for tours may be comparable to splurging on concert or sports tickets, Kornau said proceeds from each tour benefit a unique conservation project or charity.
"If you go on the elephant tour, it partners with elephant conservation," he said. "If you go on the giraffe tour, it partners with the giraffe conservation. The Friends from the Farm tour partners with a local organization here, Gabriel's Place, which is a farm-to-table soup kitchen."
While the people obviously enjoy the interaction, Kornau said the animals also gain enrichment from the experiences. For instance, as part of the barnyard experience, the pigs "bowl," which he compared to playing fetch with a dog. However, Kornau said, guests are prepared not to expect the animals to perform any specific activities.
"It's their choice to participate in whatever capacity they want to," he said. "Sometimes we'll be doing goat painting and the goats could choose not to paint. Sometimes they'll be a minimalist and they'll only choose to do a few strokes. Sometimes they may be a Jackson Pollock and throw it all over the canvas. It's up to them. That's what makes the tour so fun -- no two tours are alike."
During the Friends on the Farm tour, Carrie and Jay Hoffman discovered firsthand the artistic ability of a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats. As Carrie Hoffman held the canvas, the goats took turns standing on a stool and holding the brush in their mouth. As sister Myka painted, brother Orion watched from the sidelines.
"It's only fair to let them both take turns," said children's zoo keeper Eunice Frahm. "They really seem to enjoy it as it's modeled after some of their natural behaviors. People don't give goats enough credit, but goats are actually really intelligent."
While the Friends on the Farm tour appeals to families and children, Frahm said she regularly sees groups of adults come through. She tries to assess the group and tailor the experience to their interests, even allowing them to choose the colors for their painting. After a vigorous art session by Orion, Carrie Hoffman washed the blue paint from her hair and admired the finished work.
"We're definitely going to frame this and hang it on the wall -- we'll tell our friends it's by a really talented brother-and-sister team," Jay Hoffman said. "I really enjoyed the passion that the zoo staff has for their mission. The love that they have for their animals is really sweet and terrific."
World of the Insect is the most hands-on of the tours, insect keeper April Pitman said. As long as people aren't too squeamish, they can touch giant grubs, walking sticks and scorpions. Groups often come for children's birthday parties, and zoo employees and volunteers sometimes are rewarded for excellent work with behind-the-scenes tours. Pitman likes to educate people on misconceptions about insects.
"There's 4,000 different species of cockroaches, and only 20 species are pest species," she offered as an example. "Cockroaches think we're dirty. We'll handle them, and they'll immediately go away and start cleaning themselves."
For now, tours run from April through October, but Kornau said zoo staff hope to extend them into the winter months to include some cold weather animals. As for the "Wicked" tours, Dulaney said he'll continue to offer them whenever the show rolls into town. As a twist, Dulaney has gotten his own behind-the-scenes experience, being invited to watch the "Wicked" cast go through preshow makeup and watch the show from backstage and the orchestra pit.
But wait, what about behind the scenes with Fiona? Even though hippos were previously included in tours, both the hippos and rhinos are on hold until the babies get a little older, said Kornau.
"We've had a lot of people call and ask about it," he said. "But they're just going to have to wait a little longer."