What’s Your Gateway Animal?
“It all started with the fact that I got to pet a penguin,” Mary Skowbo says of the support she and her husband, Don, have provided Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium throughout the years.
Actually, the couple’s love for the zoo began even before that. The Chicago-area natives, who now live in West Texas, originally came to Omaha for the baseball. “Mary is a surgical nurse and she was in the area, consulting at a hospital back in the late 1980s,” Don recalls. “She called me to say that she had gotten tickets to the College World Series and I was on a plane the next morning.”
The Skowbos made their first trip to the zoo on that visit, and have come back every year since – whether they go to the CWS or not. “This year, we’re going in July,” Mary says. “Our granddaughter just graduated from college in Michigan and instead of us all spending the money to go up there for her graduation, she suggested we have a family reunion at the zoo.”
Which brings us back to the penguins. Mary is passionate about them, and each of her granddaughters have one named after them. The girls even gave Mary a t-shirt that reads, “They call me crazy penguin lady like it’s a bad thing.” (You can bet she’ll be wearing it on the July trip.)
When Mary and Don decided they wanted to adopt a penguin at the zoo about fifteen years ago, Dr. Lee G. Simmons (a.k.a. Doc, former longtime director of the Omaha zoo and current chair of the Omaha Zoo Foundation), asked Mary if she wanted to meet her adoptee in person. The couple was hooked. “We fell in love with the little blue penguins,” says Don of the warm weather Australian penguins that used to spend summers in the exhibit in front of the aquarium concession stand. “Our first major gift, in 2008, was going to be for a permanent home for them.
Unfortunately, the little blues were not fated to stay at the Omaha zoo, so the Skowbos decided to underwrite the beautiful coral reef exhibit in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium instead. That turned out to segue nicely with one of their most recent sponsorships, the staghorn coral kiosk currently on display as part of this summer’s National Geographic Photo Ark exhibition. “I still love the penguins, but being donors has given us the opportunity to branch into other areas of conservation and support what the zoo is doing to save animals all over the world,” Mary says. “The Photo Ark played into our love for that.”
In addition to the staghorn corals, the couple is sponsoring the Photo Ark’s aye-aye kiosk, because of their admiration for the work that the zoo’s Dr. Ed Louis and his team are doing in Madagascar. “From penguins to coral to lemurs,” Mary laughs.
“To elephants,” Don adds, noting the elephant plaque they purchased during that campaign. They’ve also recently gotten involved in supporting the work that Marge From is doing with endangered ferns, and the Berniece Grewcock Butterfly and Insect Pavilion – they enjoy comparing notes with the keepers about the scorpions and tarantulas that are part of life in West Texas.
While the Skowbos have been exceptionally generous over the years, they want people to know that a person doesn’t have to be wealthy to support the zoo’s mission. “We started by adopting one penguin, and as our love for the zoo grew, we have celebrated many family events and birthdays with gifts to the zoo, in addition to our larger gifts,” says Don. “The appreciation and the care that the zookeepers have for everything in our world is something we admire and want to support.”
Even though they live several states away, the Skowbos feel very much a part of the zoo family. “If we lived closer, I'd be over there every day,” Mary says. “But Omaha winters are too cold!”