The Chattanooga Zoo is celebrating their 85th anniversary this year, having been established in 1937 back when the city’s first-ever permanent zoo housed just two Rhesus Monkeys. Since then, the nonprofit has seen many changes, the latest being the new Asian Lantern Festival opening up on Nov. 10 and running through Jan. 15, 2023.

Darde Long, President and CEO of the Chattanooga Zoo, spoke with TREND to share her passion for animals, education and community.

Sitting on a bench in front of the giraffe exhibit, Long gets the attention of George, one of the three giraffes introduced at the Zoo in 2020. The tall, hoofed mammal gracefully makes his way over to Long, observing her closely and hoping for a treat. This is customary, Long says, gesturing toward the balcony outside her office where she takes breaks to interact with George and the other giraffes. Behind her, a peacock quietly struts up the sidewalk toward a few newly-installed butterfly lanterns — part of a larger collection of butterflies that will animate the Asian Lantern Festival.

While visiting a Kansas zoo last December, Long attended their annual light display and was so struck by the experience that she wanted to replicate something similar back in Chattanooga.

Faced with a decision to either continue with the Zoo’s usual annual holiday lights or change things up a bit, Long decided on an Asian theme to provide the community with a more inclusive experience. All Zoo employees received an orientation to help them understand the cultural significance of the lights: “They’re more than just a pretty display. They’re thought-provoking. And the workers who traveled here to install them shared a lot about their culture with us. They felt very comfortable here.”

Guests will be inspired by exposure to international culture: Zoo staff view the Asian Lantern Festival as an invitation for visitors to learn something new about the lantern styles, as well as the animals they represent. Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc. were able to complete the lantern installation less than a week after the family-friendly “Boo in the Zoo” event wrapped – a quick turnaround given the delicate material.

Long attributes the Zoo’s success in recent years to their team, and to the Zoo’s many volunteers who’ve been lending a hand since she came on as CEO 30 years ago. Eric Jackson, the Chattanooga Zoo’s Marketing Specialist, said the team’s favorite light display is the animatronic peacock, because of its interactive component and its resemblance to their Zoo’s most beloved animals.

“Our team prides itself on being the greatest little zoo in America,” said Jackson. “Darde has so much passion for our mission. That commitment empowers the full team as she gives us the tools we need to be successful. Having that as a foundation to do this work is wonderful.”

For those planning on attending the Asian Lantern Festival between now and January, you’ll follow a designated path to get the best views of the light displays and to participate in the interactive exhibits. The fun starts shortly after sunset so that families with younger children can begin their visit in the early evening.

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