“A Sanctuary for Nature and the Spirit” - that is the motto of the Navajo Nation Zoological and Botanical Park - the only tribally-owned zoo in the United States.
The Navajo Zoo became an accidental extension of the Navajo Tribal Museum in 1963, when a bear was left behind by a state organization following the Navajo Tribal Fair. The bear was named “Yogi the Bear” and became the first resident of the zoo located next to the museum.
In 1976 the zoo became an official program within the Navajo Tribal Parks & Recreation system and was moved to its current location at Standing Rocks, also known as the Haystacks. More recently, the zoo program was transferred to Navajo Fish & Wildlife where it has now found new life under the leadership of Zoo Director, Matthew Holdgate.
Holdgate has been continually aggressive in making improvements to the zoo. Even if you’ve been, you need to return to see what’s new and different.
The zoo primarily exhibits animals that are native to Navajoland, however, they will also house culturally significant animals such as the gila monster, or animals without homes such as abandoned pet turtles. Holdgate said over the past several years, people have dropped off turtles so they decided to keep them. Today, the Navajo Nation Zoo is home to more than 60 different species.
Holdgate said visitation has steadily increased over the past few years, noting, “Sponsorships and donations help us forego an admission fee, which makes us popular with all of our visitors, but especially schools and families.”
Children will especially enjoy an area called Kids’ Corner, which features a series of educational displays, and interactive activities. A large video monitor displays different wildlife-themed videos throughout the day and includes a tour of the zoo with a Navajo storyteller.
One new feature currently underway is a multi-species exhibit that will be home for prairie dogs, jack rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and turtles.
Another new component will be a native plant exhibit featuring several native gardens. The exhibit, over 50 feet in length, will include trees, shrubs, native grasses, cacti, plants, herbs and interpretive displays that will educate visitors about how these natural resources are used for healing, dyeing, and other purposes.
There’s a newsletter coming out called “Tribal Tails,” which will update sponsors about new exhibits and upcoming events.
Traditional Navajo teachings say that animals have a sacred place in Navajo culture. In addition to animals - insects, reptiles, plants, and other natural resources were put upon Mother Earth to teach the Navajo people how to survive.
Every animal is bestowed with unique powers and serve as messengers, healers or teach lessons about life. For example, an eagle feather is used in many traditional Navajo ceremonies and in Native American Church prayer services. The eagle is a universal sacred symbol among all the tribes in the United States and Canada. Animals are said to have a sacred spirit and therefore should be treated with respect.
There are many traditional Navajo stories about animals, however, many of them are only told during the winter season when the reptiles and animals are hibernating. Once the first thunder is heard in the spring, it is said that such stories should not be told until the winter season arrives.
The zoo is open year round from Monday through Saturday, closed on holidays.
The hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it is located in Window Rock just off Highway 264, west of the AZ/NM state line next to the Navajo Nation Museum. Admission is free.