Zoolights: Brightening the holidays and growing greener

Zoolights has brought a twinkle to Scott Clarke’s life for the last 25 years.

The connection dates back to 1989, when he started stringing up lights and arranging displays at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium as a member of the zoo’s operations department.

Back then, the extravaganza of lights was in only its second year but already was gaining in popularity.

Now, Clarke is the operations director and oversees Zoolights, which means he’s seen it change from a small event with 30 figurines to a Tacoma tradition that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and boasts hundreds of cutting-edge figurines.

The count this year stands at 167 figurines, not including the iconic Flame Tree, the 100-foot-wide Giant Pacific Octopus, the Rainbow and the Seahawks tree.

This is the year the zoo completed the switch from incandescent lights to light-emitting diodes in a long-running transition to energy efficiency. The zoo also is touting the appeal of Scuba Santa, who will be making 6 p.m. visits on Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10. 16, 17 and 23.

Clarke chatted with The News Tribune about what else visitors can expect from this year’s Zoolights.

Q: Are there any new displays or major changes to favorite displays?

A: We have a new shark with a fish theme. We’ve taken some of the old figurines and created them in a different way. Before we had bears going to a honey hive. Those were getting old so we recreated a scene where bears are going after a fish and taking it to a cub.

We redeveloped our sea lion scene. It used to be made out of wood and we turned that into an LED mesh light scene so it’s more vibrant. Our chameleon and octopus have changed to be more technically advanced. The colors on the octopus transition into one color from another so it makes it more lifelike.

We’ve evolved our Seahawks scene. Before we had a single tree that was in the Seahawks colors with a 12 on it. We expanded the lights around that tree into the shrubbery so it’s more eye-catching.

Q: How many lights were strung this year?

A: Over 575,000 and I think it’s beyond that. Part of it was changing out some of our figurines that had been incandescent to LEDs. We’ve increased just in general decorating.

Q: Tell me about the switch to LED lights. You’ve been working toward that goal for years. Was there one particular thing that got you to the 100 percent LED milestone?

A: For this year, it was putting all of our scenes, our figurines we’d used in the past, and changing them all over to LED.

It’s been an evolution in terms of what we can do with sequencing. LED lights operate differently in how they come on and off compared to the incandescent. We’ve had some challenges switching our scene stuff to LED from the technical side but we’re over that hurdle.

We started LEDs in the early 2000s and made our transition to LEDs carefully budgetwise. We had to figure out what LED lights are out there and how long can we expect them to last. We wanted to figure out what LEDs work best for our environmental needs in the Northwest.

They look better and they’re more vibrant so it makes it more appealing.

Q: How do you come up with the ideas for new displays?

A: We get feedback from all the staff here but we have to live within our abilities. Everybody throws out their ideas and we take that and refine it with what we can achieve in the time we have. We try and look at it from a perspective of what we can be successful at.

Q: When do you start setting Zoolights up?

A: Our kickoff starts the first of October and sometimes the last part of September. That’s the time we’re putting them out on the ground. We might get into production of new displays in August.

Behind the scenes, we’re working on what we’re putting up and replacing lights that have faded. A good six months out of the year, we’ve got somebody in the operations department pretty focused on Zoolights.

This is all put up in-house. We don’t contract out any part of this operation, design or otherwise. It’s all homegrown. Everybody gets a little piece of this. Sixteen full-time staff that work on this place year-round.

Q: If someone has never been to Zoolights, what’s the one display you’d direct them to?

A: Everybody has their own favorites. I really liked what we did with the octopus this year. We also relocated our eagle scene catching a fish. The way we got that set up this year is nice. Each of these individual areas we work is kind of fresh.

Q: Your crew not only strings up the lights but you’re out there during Zoolights to maintain the displays. What kind of comments do you hear from the public?

A: Most often we hear, “Wow, that’s cool. Look at that. How’d they do that?” It’s nice to get that reinforcement from the public when they see something they like.

We take pride in the part we can play in exhibition. People think about this place for our animals and the message of conservation we have, and Zoolights is an opportunity for the operations department in terms of conservation. We’ve transitioned into LED lights, which is a step that supports our mission and reduces energy and our carbon footprint.