On Friday, September 10, guests of the Omaha Zoo Foundation’s biennial Zoofari event had the opportunity to experience the state-of-the-art Harper Event Center—as well as other recent additions at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium—while celebrating the heroes that make it all possible.

“Zoofari used to always be inside the Zoo, but it had gotten so big over the years that we had to move it to tents off the Zoo grounds,” said Ellen Wright who, with her husband, Stavely, co-chaired the event. “We wanted to get back to our roots, and also showcase all the exciting new developments—including the beautiful new Harper Event Center and the green space around it.”

Because the Harper Event Center’s capacity is limited to 700 people, Zoofari ’21 was considerably smaller than its predecessors—which was all part of the plan. By reducing the number of guests, organizers were able to accommodate pandemic concerns and comfort levels, while creating a magical evening on a much smaller budget than in years past.

“The Foundation’s number one priority is responsible financial stewardship,” explains Tina Cherica, executive director of the Omaha Zoo Foundation. “We wanted Zoofari 2021 to be a more intimate evening so we could engage with everyone and really let the Zoo—and what it means to the Omaha community—play a starring role.”

And the Zoo was definitely ready for its close-up. Guests were treated to a red-carpet entrance like no other as they wound their way through the African Grasslands in a chauffeured golf cart or glided over it in Skyfari. Star turns along the way included our real giraffes, elephants and big cats, as well as their life-size likenesses. Upon arriving at the Harper Event Center, everyone was greeted by spectacular balloon sculptures created by Balloon Villa and mingled over cocktails in Stingray Beach or the nearby open air green space. “We embraced the fact that we were outdoors,” says Wright. “Our majestic surroundings, coupled with the talent and creativity of our steering committee, gave us more freedom than we would have had in four-walled tents.”

After the dinner program, emceed by the inimitable Melissa Peterman, and an auction presided over by Gabe Petersen, guests had the opportunity to attend an after-party with DJ Brent Crampton in the newly renovated Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium. With an ocean vodka martini bar, late-night bites and its own spectacular balloon sculptures by The Wall Flower Omaha, this party marked the kick-off of ZooLaLa, which will be held on alternate years to Zoofari.

The magnificent Harper Center and the preview of ZooLaLa weren’t the only exciting news at Zoofari, however. We were also able to celebrate the recent and upcoming births of several baby animals at the Zoo. Guests were able to bid on the chance to name our baby giraffe, born on July 31, and our new Malayan tapir, born on August 24, in our live auction. But one of the biggest moments of the night (which is no small feat considering the auction also included a Galapagos cruise and a luxury safari in Tanzania, led by Doctor Lee G. Simmons and his wife Marie) was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a live elephant ultrasound, be present for the delivery, and name our baby elephant, who is due in early 2022. We are humbled and honored to announce that the winning bid for this prize—by our longtime supporters, the Grewcock family—was matched by Walter Scott for a grand total of $900,000.
Of course, we were all devasted, just two weeks after Zoofari, to learn of the passing of Mr. Scott, one of the co-founders of our Foundation and longtime chairman of the board. Along with his wife, Sue, who served as our first executive director, Mr. Scott’s generosity and vision are at the heart of everything we have been able to accomplish since our Foundation was established in 1984. Mr. Scott always dedicated himself to the success of Zoofari with gusto—and this year was no exception. That night, he stayed later than usual and expressed his pride in our Zoo and the generosity of our patrons and donors. Together, they helped us raise a total of more than $3.7 million to support our mission of education, conservation and preservation of the world’s wildlife. On a night when we celebrated heroes, we were pleased to see that one of our most dedicated heroes was able to witness his great legacy in action.

We thank all of the heroes who helped make this year’s Zoofari such a success, and we look forward to seeing everyone next year on Friday, September 9 at our first biennial ZooLaLa— which will be held inside the Zoo and chaired by Haley Walker and Regan Fahey Muhs—and in 2023 at our next Zoofari.