|Location||Window Rock, Navajo Nation (Arizona), United States|
|Land area||7 acres (2.8 ha)|
|No. of animals||~150|
|No. of species||50+|
|Annual visitors||~ 33,000|
The Navajo Nation Zoological and Botanical Park is located in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation. It is the only tribally owned zoological park in the United States and is notable among zoological facilities in that it labels its exhibits in a Native American Indian language. Having been operated by the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation Department since its inception in the early 1960s, it became part of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife in September 2006.
While its facilities have the unique mission of preserving and caring for the fauna and flora significant to Navajo culture, its existence has also sparked controversy among the more traditionalist elements in Navajo society.
The zoo's first specimen was a bear that had been left behind after the 1963 Navajo Nation Fair by a state organization, and the animal was named "Yogi the Bear," after the then-popular cartoon character. Since then, the exhibit has grown to about 50 different species on display, almost all of them native to the area. In 1976, the zoo, then named "Navajo Tribal Zoo," relocated to its current home and became part of the Navajo Tribal Parks & Recreation system. In September 2006, it was reorganized to be administered by the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The facility's current director and curator is Matthew Holdgate, a biologist from the University of New Hampshire with prior work experience as an animal research specialist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and with the U.S. Forest Service in California.
The zoo currently employs five full-time and one part-time staff members and has an annual budget of US$336,000. It is primarily funded by the Navajo Nation Government, but also solicits for donations from project sponsorship, animal adoption, and donations; admission is free.
The zoo operates on an area spanning 7 acres (2.8 ha) and is located in the vicinity of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock (Tségháhoodzání). It is home to about 150 animals, representing over 50 species and sees an estimated 33,000 visitors each year.
The zoo dubs itself "a Sanctuary for Nature and the Spirit", and according to its mission statement, it aims to conserve "native plants and animals, including rare, sensitive and endangered species" with an emphasis on fauna and flora that is important and significant to Navajo culture and traditions. In this spirit, it houses primarily animals native to Navajoland and implements cultural and educational programs in cooperation with schools and similar facilities in the area; furthermore, it provides care for injured and orphaned animals found in the wild. The zoo also fosters the use of plants and animals for ceremonial purposes in accordance with Navajo tradition, and regularly accepts appointments for offerings being made and ceremonies held within its facilities.
Its wild creatures include black bear, bobcat, Mexican wolves, elk, Gila monsters, coyotes, rattlesnakes, cougars, skunks, and red foxes, as well as cranes, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, and great horned owls. In keeping with Navajo tradition, none of the zoo's birds were captured for the purpose of being exhibited, but were rather rescued after sustaining injuries from vehicles or electrical lines and are thus unable to fly; the majority of the other specimens are also non-releasable and unable to survive in the wild due to being orphaned or having been confiscated as illegal pets from their former owners.
Starting in 2008, the zoo's then 30-year-old Discovery Center was renovated and redesigned to bring it in line with modern zoo standards; apart from displaying the majority of the park's invertebrates, it also incorporates a display with traditional Navajo stories relating to the animals.
Any animal in the zoo can be "adopted" for a price of US$100 annually to cover the cost of food and care; the adopting party will receive a certificate and has his or her name engraved on the plaque next to the exhibit in question. If the animal has never been adopted before, the sponsor will have the opportunity of giving the animal a name; in this process, various animals have been given names such as "Napoleon" for the park's mountain lion and "Señor Atsá" for the golden eagle.
Since 2008, the zoo has been lobbying for a permit to build an eagle sanctuary in order to be able to distribute the animals' feathers to tribal members for ceremonial purposes in accordance with federal law. Since the species are listed as endangered, any remains of dead animals are confiscated by the federal government and transported to a central repository in Colorado; members of Native American Indian nations then have to apply individually to receive parts, such as feathers, in a lengthy process with wait-times that can exceed several years. Since a tribally operated eagle sanctuary constitutes an exception to the process, it would be instrumental in strengthening Navajo cultural sovereignty; currently, only the Iowa and Zuni nations operate eagle sanctuaries for this purpose.
In January 1999, outgoing Navajo Nation president Milton Bluehouse ordered the zoo closed after two women from Rock Ridge claimed to have been visited by the Diyin Dine'é, traditional Navajo deities, who had given them a warning, saying that the Navajo people were not living according to tradition by keeping caged animals, specifically bears, snakes, and eagles, which are considered sacred.
Subsequently, during his first days in office, Bluehouse's successor, Kelsey A. Begaye, received more complaints and letters protesting the zoo's closure than concerning any other political issue. After temporarily reversing Bluehouse's decision, Begaye then summoned a meeting with the Navajo Nation's Hataa?ii Advisory Council[note 1] to discuss the situation; the group, however, refused to consider the matter while the animals were in hibernation and postponed any advice or decision until April of the following year. Options under consideration were releasing the animals into the wild, not accepting new animals and closing the zoo after the last one had died, or renaming the zoo to a term that would be considered more respectful to the animals.
Opponents to the shut-down maintained that most of the animals were unable to survive in the wild and would perish, and that the zoo's facilities had become one of the last possibilities for future generations of Navajos to see the sacred creatures and thereby relate to traditional stories, due to the fact that most younger Navajos are more accustomed to dealing with domesticated livestock rather than untamed animals.
On March 12, Begaye announced his decision to keep the zoo open without expanding it and letting the remaining animals live out their lives on the zoo-grounds. According to Harry Walters, an anthropologist and former chairman of the Center for Diné Studies at Diné College in Tsaile (Tséhíl), the incident demonstrates a crucial difference between Navajo and Western culture in the way visions and supernatural experiences are handled: "Rather than focus on the sightings to determine if who saw it was nuts or not - that's what a Westerner would do - we look at it as a message: 'Are we going the way we should?'" Walters said.
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