Pueblo, CO - ElectriCritters at the Pueblo Zoo is back for its 28th season thanks to sponsor Black Hills Energy and the many volunteers who make possible the intricate designs and spectacular light displays. For the last few decades, the Pueblo Community College Welding Program has been bringing the massive, metal designs to life in a mutually beneficial partnership that provides workforce skills to students and a joyful holiday experience to the Pueblo community.
Abbie Krause, executive director of the Pueblo Zoo, said when the State Fair ended its drive through holiday lights in 1993, it opened the door to the Zoo’s annual event. She laughed at the story of employees hiding in the bushes turning the lights on for the initial opening walkthrough to kick off the event and off as visitors passed, a practice that proved to be labor intensive.
In The Pueblo Zoo Through the Years: An Inside Look by Jonnene D. McFarland and Martha M. Osborn, Marketing and Events Coordinator Pat Ponce recalls the early years:
“Richard Montano designed and built frames for the lighted displays -- a 12-foot tall logo, elephant with calf, giraffe, orangutan, and rhinoceros. He also built lighted fiberglass sculptures of a penguin pair and a chick, and we purchased two lighted deer. Richard attached rope lights to the logo sign, as we only had enough money for rope lights for one critter. The grounds guys, some volunteers, and I wrapped mini-light strings around the others.”
To this day, Montano continues the design and installation, but after a few years, the bending and welding of the metal rods into creatures was taken over by welding students from Pueblo Community College and industrial arts students from Pueblo County High School.
According to Krause, the process begins in late spring/early summer with the brainstorming of new ideas/exhibits. Often the latest Electricritters displays will reflect the new or existing inhabitants of the Pueblo Zoo.
“In 2015, we added painted dogs because of that year’s exhibit and in 2016 we added hummingbirds to represent the Plant. Grow. Fly. Pollination Garden that had opened that year,” Krause said.
Montano presents the staff with a draft of options. Selections then are made based on which would work best in terms of controller boxes, movement, and traffic patterns. Once selections are made, finer drawings with detail, scale, colors, movement are sent to PCC for welding and to suppliers for the controller boxes.
Catlin Davis, PCC welding program manager, has participated in Electricritters as both a student and instructor. With an early November deadline, he receives the specifications in early October and immediately proceeds to order materials and make assignments to either his fabrication or welding skills classes as group-based learning. Each student is tasked with a specific role.
Davis said he often purchases the materials with vendor/educational discounts to save money and often uses scrap he has in inventory, so it’s a win-win proposition for the college and the zoo. He doesn’t order extra materials in order to teach the students attention to detail.
“The students learn material and waste management and to measure precisely so as to make the most of the supplies they have,” he said.
He also demands precision, often to the dismay of his students.
“I remember a unicorn/horse that was a nightmare. While the project ended well, a leg was out of proportion, and the students were about to lose it after I had them re-do it five times,” Davis said.
In the past, students also had to learn to deal with space limitations. Krause said that in the early years, the drawing scales submitted were so large that finished pieces wouldn’t fit in the PCC workshop, nor could they be transported or stored. Designs were adapted to include segments with a maximum of 8 feet.
PCC welding recently experienced a shop renovation that increased the size of its facility by 1400 square feet, which now provides adequate room for the large show pieces. That hasn’t always been the case. Davis vividly recalls the innovation required to finish an Animals on the Bus exhibit, which was the largest they had ever done.
“We built it in two pieces using 4 by 8-foot tables then welded the pieces together on the floor,” he said.
With the enhanced workspace, he said a massive arch completed in 2019 could easily have been built in one piece, but instead was completed in multiple pieces to allow the zoo to more easily transport and store it.
Davis said the welding program frequently jumps on community projects like the recently completed gates at City Park, not seeking reimbursement, but a learning experience for their students. The zoo is generous with tickets, so the students can show their family and friends their handiwork.
“One of the best takeaways for me is the pride the students have in their work,” he said. “Once exhibits are completed, students take their family and friends and say, “I built that. I helped create that!”
Due to budgetary considerations, zoo officials decided not to add a new exhibit this year, which in the end solved a scheduling problem that might have emerged due to the pandemic. Normally, the welding students complete one or two new exhibits a year, depending on the size and complexity.
“Holding off this year was probably for the best given that our program shut down after 13 weeks, which would have been a challenge with the typical schedule,” Davis said.
ElectriCritters operates from 5-9 p.m. through December 27 with special Member Mondays and Discount Nights. Due to the pandemic, spaces are limited so times must be booked online at https://www.pueblozoo.org/electricritters. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for children without a membership. Zoo member tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for children. Children under 3 years old are free, but also need a ticket for timed capacity.
Besides viewing the lights and more than 100 exhibits, visitors can warm up with a cup of cocoa at the Candy Cane Café, shop at the gift store, and enjoy a COVID safe family experience.
Catlin Davis, PCC Welding Program Manager, 719-248-4259
Abbie Krause, Executive Director, Pueblo Zoo, 720-884-6314